There is little public attendance or media coverage of public budget hearings that deal with billions of taxpayer dollars. Public involvement is severely missed in this process. Delawareans are simply presented the Governor’s proposed budget in January, after many hearings and proposals are done and considered.
The Governor holds a significant amount of power in the process, which results in a near-complete state budget before the Joint Finance Committee hearings even begin in February. Due to the lack of attendance at the initial budget request hearings, February would essentially be the public’s first say in the process (through their elected officials on the JFC). However, the JFC does not have as much say as you might imagine, with pre-allocated funds for schools, government agencies and more.
In a bid to enhance the transparency of this process and to hold not only the Governor, but the agencies presenting budgets accountable, A Better Delaware has summarized what was delivered in the recent budget request “public hearings,” below.
Strikingly, there was clear disregard and complete lack of sensitivity to what many Delaware businesses, households, and residents have been through during COVID-19. While businesses were forced to reduce their operations or even close down—costing revenues, jobs, and even life’s work—Delaware agencies are presenting budget requests with 4%+, 9%+, and 18%+ increases over FY 2021 budgets.
Why is the state so out of touch from what its own residents are going through?
The Department of Agriculture submitted a budget request that was the same as FY 2021, stating:
“This request is fiscally responsible while allowing our Department to fulfill its mission of serving our agricultural community and providing a wide array of consumer protection services for Delawareans.”
Unfortunately, other agencies operated as if the coronavirus was a hallucination, and moved forward with ever-increasing budget requests, despite a state revenue forecast that could change any day.
The Department of Justice requested a 3.49% increase to hire dozens of new attorneys and staff. How much funding and how many attorneys are going towards the numerous out-of-state affirmative litigation cases that Delaware has joined in on recently? Meanwhile, workers in Delaware across various industries have lost their jobs due to COVID.
Delaware State University requested a 9.76% increase, much of which can be attributed to “campus improvements.” With DSU’s president now working for Biden and bringing in multimillion dollar donations, the request should be updated to show some fiscal responsibility and remove the burden of this massive budget increase from the state’s taxpayers.
Perhaps the most alarming is the unabashed 18.75% increase requested by DELDOT. Despite continuing with full funding during the pandemic, the agency has presented the largest budget increase in the state, totaling an additional $62.1M in taxpayer dollars. DELDOT was able to keep their full budget, receive federal CARES Act funding, and is now asking for a budget increase on top of that. Meanwhile, our restaurants, hotels, retailers, and more are losing capacity, revenues, staff, and even shutting down—with limited assistance offered to prevent this.
Delaware taxpayers turning a blind eye to the budget formation process has unwittingly enabled state leaders to abandon the concept of fiscal responsibility when it comes their money.
Minnesota and New Mexico have been examining better government spending through a partnership with the Pew-MacArthur Results First Initiative, where policymakers look at the effectiveness and return on investment of programs to determine where to allocate taxpayers dollars. For example, Minnesota agencies were asked to provide evidence of desired outcomes along with their budget request for each program. This was not present in many Delaware agency presentations.
It’s time for Delaware lawmakers and our Governor to actually address the ever-growing budget by instituting a policy of data-based spending. Agencies can use existing funds more efficiently, invest in programs that improve life for the state’s residents, provide more economic opportunity, and show that they can operate by normal budgeting standards that businesses and individuals already do. There have been efforts to fix this here before, but they have failed.
The Government Accountability Act, a bipartisan bill that never made it to a vote, would have made the annual budget process part of a “performance management system of strategic planning, performance metrics and performance budgeting,” that would make State government more efficient, reduce costs, and eliminate waste in the process and operations executed by the state.
Another bill that never made it to a committee hearing would have implemented a mandatory window to wait before voting on any budget bill, in order to allow for adequate evaluation and discussion before being pushed through. While not bipartisan, this bill would have forced lawmakers to actually read the budget before voting to pass it.
The time to do better and be better is now.