The budget-writing Joint Finance Committee has been spending the recent General Assembly recess approving departmental and legislative requests for spending increases for community priorities.
First, it has approved a substantial increase in funding for public school bus drivers and related programs. Second, it has approved funding increases for childcare assistance for lower income families. Third, the Senior Property Tax Credit, reduced during the Budget Crisis of 2017 by $100, has been restored to $500.
Of course, the Joint Finance Committee only reviewed and voted on funding priorities for the fiscal 2023 operating budget last week. The full General Assembly has to still vote on the full and final budget by June 30.
Regarding the school bus drivers, the JFC voted last week to add $16.9 million to address recommendations from the Public School Transportation Committee, a group consisting of legislative and state budget officials, public and charter school personnel, and bus contractor representatives.
As part of the vote, Joint Finance Committee earmarked $11.7 million to increase the minimum hourly rate for bus drivers, $3.8 million for administrative expenses, and $1.4 million to increase the basic maintenance allowance by 30%.
“We rely on bus drivers to safely transport our children from home to school and back every day, and they fulfill that vital role wonderfully. It’s long past time for us to fairly compensate these dedicated workers for their service to our students,” said Rep. Kim Williams, a Joint Finance Committee member and chair of the House Education Committee. “In recent years, it has become more difficult to recruit and retain school bus drivers. Boosting their pay has been a priority, and I’m grateful we were able to provide a meaningful increase for our partners in the educational system.”
Concerns about school bus driver shortages have persisted in recent years, with low pay cited as one of the main issues. In approving the funding increase, the Joint Finance Committee directed that funds provided through the school transportation formula to provide hourly rates for bus drivers should to the maximum extent possible go directly toward increasing bus driver salaries and to address workforce shortage and retention issues.
The $11.7 million increase will raise the reimbursement rate to reflect an hourly rate increased from $15.92 per hour to $21 an hour, though the actual amount a contractor pays their drivers could vary.
“School bus drivers are critically important partners in our public education system,” said Sen. Laura Sturgeon, chair of the Senate Education Committee and a member of the Joint Finance Committee. “Like all Delawareans, the men and women we trust to safely transport our children to and from school each day deserve to be paid a fair wage. I want to thank my colleagues on JFC for continuing our work to increase bus driver pay, while also keeping pace with the growing expense of gasoline and bus maintenance, to provide the level of service our schools and our neighbors depend on.”
Regarding Childcare Assistance, the JFC voted to add $18.9 million to Delaware’s Purchase of Care program, an increase of 29%.
The Purchase of Care program is a subsidy that provides support for early childhood and after-school education for children from birth through age 12 living within 185% of the Federal Poverty Limit. The funds help low-income families pay for their childcare so that parents or guardians can work or receive workforce training.
“For thousands of Delaware families, so much hinges on access to reliable, affordable childcare. Job opportunities, housing, even health care can be influenced by the availability of quality childcare,” said Rep. Sherae’a Moore, who advocated for increased purchase of care funds in the budget and has put forth legislation to assess early childhood education needs statewide. “We still have more to do to ensure that childcare providers in Delaware have the resources necessary to serve the number of families in need, but I commend the members of the Joint Finance Committee for directing additional funds to this program. It will do a lot of good for a lot of parents and children.”
According to the University of Delaware’s Biden School of Public Policy and Administration, as of March 2019, Purchase of Care subsidized early childhood and after-school education and care for more than 15,000 children, with 65% of them 5 years or younger. Research demonstrates that 90% of brain development happens between birth and age 5.
In approving the funding increase, the Joint Finance Committee noted that those funds “to the maximum extent possible” would be used to provide wage increases to childcare workers and address workforce shortages and retention issues.
“The COVID-19 pandemic showed us all just how critical affordable childcare services are for working families in Delaware,” said Sen. Kyle Evans Gay, a leading advocate for early childhood education and the state’s purchase of care system. “Without state support, childcare services are often out of reach for struggling families whose children need the extra support the most. At the same time, providers are having an increasingly difficult time hiring and retaining educators and staff. The funding increase approved by the Joint Finance Committee is a great first step that will help shore up staffing and make childcare more affordable for hundreds of families.”
Regarding the Senior Property Tax Credit, the JFC voted to increase the senior property tax credit from $400 to $500, restoring it to its pre-2017 level. The credit was cut by $100 as part of an effort to close a budget shortfall that year.
Lawmakers of both parties have advocated for restoring the tax credit to $500, but this is the first attempt to find its way into the operating budget.
“For many seniors throughout the state, an extra $100 can mean the difference in paying a utility bill, groceries, or even prescription medication. Since Governor Carney recommended in his 2017 Budget to cut the Senior Tax Credit, I have pushed for this to be restored,” said Rep. Kim Williams, a Joint Finance Committee member who has advocated for returning the credit to its original level. “Given our current budget situation, it’s the right thing to do to provide seniors with a little extra financial support. Yesterday, I voted alongside my colleagues for including this in the fiscal 2023 operating budget and look forward to seeing it pass next month.”
Under the program, homeowners age 65 or over are eligible for a tax credit against regular school property taxes of 50%, up to $400. Those who moved to Delaware after January 1, 2018 must reside in the state for 10 years to be eligible for the credit. The tax credit may only be used against property taxes on a primary residence.
“No one has been hit harder by the COVID-19 pandemic than Delaware’s growing population of seniors,” said Sen. Jack Walsh, the Senate prime sponsor of multiple bills related to the Senior Property Tax Relief Program. “As we prepare to vote on how to allocate yet another surplus, I am grateful to my colleagues on the Joint Finance Committee for recognizing that it is time to restore the full senior property tax credit that was reduced in 2017 during a very difficult budget year. Seniors on a fixed income are being asked to stretch every dollar as far as it will go, and this tax credit combined with the tax relief rebate program we passed earlier this year will help provide them with the breathing room they desperately need.”
According to the Department of Finance, in fiscal 2021, more than 70,000 property owners received the senior property tax credit, averaging about $340.
“I could not be more thrilled at hearing this great news. Thank you to the Joint Finance Committee for making the $500 Senior Property Tax Credit a funding priority this year,” said Rep. Mike Ramone. “I have been fighting for restoration of the credit for multiple years now and, finally being able to tell our senior citizens that some financial relief is coming their way, has made it all worth the work.”