- Associated Press - Tuesday, January 31, 2017

DOVER, Del. (AP) - Delaware lawmakers began delving into the state’s budget challenges Tuesday with the first in a series of committee hearings.

The legislature’s Joint Finance Committee is reviewing state agency budgets and spending requests as lawmakers begin to fashion a budget for the fiscal year starting July 1.

Based on recent revenue projections, the appropriation limit for the upcoming fiscal year is $201 million less than this year’s general fund appropriation. With additional obligations for Medicaid, school enrollment growth and debt service expected next year, budget officials have suggested the real shortfall, compared to the current budget, is about $350 million.

In the past, the committee has typically looked at agency spending requests for the upcoming fiscal year and compared them to current funding levels. Given the significant challenge this year, the committee is taking a more analytical approach to agency spending, looking at base budgets and performance measures to check that agencies are meeting expectations and spending wisely, while also trying to ferret out duplicative or unnecessary spending.

“It’s almost like zeroing out the budget and starting from scratch,” said Rep. James Johnson, D-New Castle.

Among preliminary questions directed at budget director Mike Jackson were queries about the amount of overtime pay state employees are receiving and whether the state vehicle fleet is being managed efficiently. Committee members also asked about unspent fund balances being held by state agencies, and spending on public education.

Jackson noted that while there are roughly 740 fewer cabinet agency employees now than in 2009, the number of school district employees, paid mostly with state funds, has grown by more than 2,500. During the same period, public school enrollment grew by about 11,800 students - which amounts to roughly one new school job for every five new students.

Officials noted that one factor in school employee growth is an increasing number of special education students, who require more intensive instruction. Special education enrollment grew by 8 percent over the past school year, while overall enrollment grew by only about 1 percent.

Sen. Brian Bushweller, D-Dover, said he hoped Education Secretary Susan Bunting, who will face the committee Wednesday, can explain why so many more school children are being designated as special education students.

Medicaid is also proving to be a significant budget challenge for the state, which is spending more than $750 million this year on the health care program for low-income and disabled people. Enrollment in the state Medicaid program has increased from about 174,000 in fiscal 2010 to almost 231,000 this year.

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