The danger of allowing tacked-on changes to the Delaware state budget
The Delaware state budget plays a significant role in citizens’ lives, but the process can be hard for anyone to follow – especially if there’s a lack of transparency. Groups like A Better Delaware, founded by Chris Kenny, are tracking budgeting, spending and taxes to help voters make heads or tails of how taxpayer dollars are being used. One area that may be tricky for taxpayers to follow is “epilogue language” – revisions to original bills – that they say is sometimes harmful.
How epilogue language is used
The state prepares three types of budgets: A general operating budget, capital budget and grant-in-aid budget. The Joint Finance Committee (JFC) holds a series of hearings on each, which involves rounds of tweaks and until final approval. During this process, the JFC can insert epilogue language — additional funding and/or policy changes inserted at the end of the three budget bills — which may include updates or general guidelines on how the funds should be used.
Despite being difficult to navigate, epilogue language can often be harmless and smooth the budgeting process from year to year. Sometimes, however, epilogue language isn’t good for Delawareans. When it is used to change policy, it can be an intentional play by lawmakers to pass legislation that otherwise wouldn’t stand on its own.
The Charter School Transportation Slush Fund shows how epilogue language can be abused
In 2019, and for nine years prior, epilogue language in the budget established what has been called the “Charter School Transportation Slush Fund.” This addition allowed charter schools to keep unused transportation funds, despite Delaware law mandating all schools return these funds to the taxpayer. According to one legislator, the additional funds kept by charter schools from 2016 through 2018 totaled over $3.5 million.
In 2018, the JFC wrote the Slush Fund into an official bill, Senate Bill 235. However, instead of letting it go to a vote, the JFC inserted the bill into the epilogue language of the FY 2019 budget bill, essentially guaranteeing its passage instead of allowing it to be up for a vote on its own merits.
This tacked-on spending is voted on by either the Bond or Joint Finance Committee, respectively, before the bond or budget bill makes it upstairs for a full vote, meaning that anything put in there has been heard and considered. Nothing in the epilogue of our budget bills is an accident or oversight.
Now is the time to change things
New people and ideas are the best way to change things for the better. With a sizable slate of freshman legislators this session, A Better Delaware sees an opportunity for reform and more transparency, so that epilogue language is only used for the good of Delawareans, not the good of legislators’ agendas.
As regular legislative session reconvenes, continue to be an active participant in the process. Your elected officials are here to work for you.