With More Federal Aid On The Horizon, Gov. Justice Says He May Be Open To A Special Session
Updated Tuesday, July 28 2020 at 10:52 a.m.
As federal lawmakers debate another coronavirus aid package, Gov. Jim Justice says he’d like a small group of state lawmakers to help shape how West Virginia would use that funding.
But Justice also said Monday he might be open to a special session to let lawmakers have more input on any additional dollars that come in.
The governor said Monday he’s so far held two meetings with a group of top lawmakers to outline his ideas of how to spend money from the CARES Act, passed in March.
Just before the start of the fiscal year on July 1, Justice unveiled his plan to make use of the federal aid, which he said shored up a $255 million deficit and allocated money to “COVID-related highway projects,” unemployment and other programs.
“Now, keep in mind that in that we set aside 678 million of those dollars to make sure that we wouldn't get in a situation where we would have to lay a tax burden on our small businesses and on our businesses across the state,” Justice said of his plan to make use of the CARES Act funding. “Now that money is sitting there in a bucket to ensure that we'll be able to backfill the dollars that we've sent out and drained our unemployment fund to ‘zippo’ and all that kind of stuff.”
Many lawmakers are frustrated over not having input on the spending, but top Senate Republicans have stalled efforts to get the Legislature back for a special session.
While members of the House have secured the needed three-fifths majority to call themselves back, only 12 of 14 Senate Democrats and one Republican — Sen. Mike Azinger of Wood County — have signed on to the effort. At least 21 members of the Senate would be needed to make the effort a reality.
Justice himself has pushed back on the idea of bringing all 134 lawmakers back to Charleston. But with more federal funding potentially available — and the state’s financial situation not as daunting as a month ago — Justice’s playbook could change.
The governor said Monday that he plans to look to the informal advisory committee he’s established for input on the spending of new dollars, but acknowledged he may call lawmakers back to work.
House Speaker Roger Hanshaw, R-Clay, Majority Leader Amy Summers, R-Taylor, Finance Chair Eric Householder, R-Berkeley and Minority Leader Tim Miley, D-Harrison have represented the lower chamber. Senate President Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, Finance Chair Craig Blair, R-Berkeley, and Senate Minority Leader Roman Prezioso, D-Marion have been involved in the talks. State Auditor John B. McCuskey also confirmed he has been involved in meetings.
So far, members of the committee have described the meetings as “informational.” The governor’s office said Monday they would let the news media know if those talks become publicly accessible.
But despite a seeming willingness to involve all lawmakers, Justice on Monday did cite some reasons for not bringing everyone back to Charleston.
“We already had a semi little outbreak on the House side with COVID. That's an issue,” Justice said. “There's absolutely the issue that we'll get 7,000 ideas and what we'll do is spin around and spend the taxpayers dollars for, you know, something that we can do.”
Justice suggested that the lawmakers who sit on the informal workgroup can solicit ideas from other lawmakers who, in turn, could ask constituents for suggestions on how to spend any newly available dollars.
According to data provided by the auditor’s office, the state has spent just over $105 million of $1.26 billion in federal aid that’s been earmarked for coronavirus relief. That number does not reflect the nearly $700 millon from the CARES Act that Justice has set aside for unemployment benefits.