COVID-19 funds drive a wedge in West Virginia

Gov. Jim Justice’s handling of the state’s $1.25 billion CARES Act funding has drawn the ire of Democrats. So far, his office says almost $60 million has been sent to local governments.

West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice
AP Photo/Chris Jackson
July 30, 2020, 8 p.m.

When the federal government gave West Virginia more than $1 billion to cover COVID-19 pandemic costs, the money fell directly under Gov. Jim Justice’s power to spend.

Some cities in the U.S. with populations of more than 500,000 received funds from Congress to help their responses to the pandemic. But with its large rural swaths, none of the local governments in West Virginia fit this criteria, and the $1.25 billion provided through the CARES Act went straight to Justice.

Justice’s plan for the money and the pace at which he has doled out the funding have become flashpoints in his reelection bid, as Democrats in the state legislature say the governor has rejected their input.

“He’s sitting on the $1.25 billion and using it as his own Monopoly money. He’s essentially ignoring an entire branch of government and operating as a king,” Del. Shawn Fluharty said.

Justice has defended his handling of CARES Act funding. “You don’t have a politician sitting here, you don’t have a politician sitting here at all,” he said Wednesday during a press conference. “You have somebody that’s trying to protect all of our West Virginians and absolutely do it from an economic standpoint and a health standpoint.”

So far, $56.9 million of this funding had been awarded to cities and counties throughout the state, the governor’s office told National Journal on Thursday. Justice has planned for $200 million in total to go to local governments from this funding.

Democrats in the state legislature say at the beginning of the pandemic, the relatively low COVID-19 numbers could be largely attributed to the state medical community leading the response. The strategy changed in June, however, when Justice ousted the state's health commissioner, Dr. Catherine Slemp.

“There’s a lot of institutional knowledge that he did not take advantage of,” said state Sen. Ron Stollings, who ran in the Democratic gubernatorial primary. “I’m not sure who he looks to for information.”

Democrats attribute this shift to it being an election year.

“For four months now, he has had the pulpit … he attacks his opponent during these press conferences, he limits questions that can be asked by the press, he limits who can be there. He has complete control,” said Fluharty.

While Fluharty “absolutely” believes that Justice’s handling of the crisis could mobilize voters to support Democratic opponent Ben Salango in November, others are more cautious and acknowledge the difficulty of electing a Democrat to a statewide office in West Virginia, where President Trump carried 68 percent of voters.

Despite frustration from both parties, Republicans don’t consider the gubernatorial election competitive.

In his position as a Kanawha County commissioner, Salango said that working with Justice during the pandemic has been “a challenge.”

“As the county official, we've been able to talk to some of his administration but never directly to the governor,” said Salango. “I was able to get U.S. senators on the phone, I was able to get mayors on the phone, and I was even able to get Dr. [Anthony] Fauci on the phone. But I was unable to get the governor on the phone to come up with a decisive plan.”

County officials are concerned about Justice's plan to send them only 16 percent—$200 million—of the CARES Act funds. The West Virginia Association of Counties told Justice in a July 6 letter that the cities and counties were expecting more. The Treasury Department said in a guidance document that states “should” pass down 45 percent of the CARES Act funding to local governments that didn’t get money directly.

“We wanted to have direct distributions from the federal government instead of going through the governor, another government entity,” said Jonathan Adler, executive director of the association, in an interview with National Journal. “I’m not picking on the governor, that’s how the system was set up, and I think he’s tried to do a very good job with that, but there’ve been some questions, and maybe we felt counties, local governments have been short changed compared to what the state would get.”

Adler noted that after the association had pushed back against Justice’s plans to use $100 million for highway projects, he reallocated $50 million to broadband. But Democratic legislators say no action has been taken. This concerns Democrats, who say investment in broadband could help support students who learn remotely in the fall.

Addressing broadband inequities has been a longtime goal, said Fred Albert, president for the teachers union AFT-West Virginia, the state chapter of the American Federation of Teachers. The group has endorsed Salango.

“Any allotment of money, the $50 million or whatever it’s going to take, is much needed so I applaud the governor in deciding to put that in broadband, but let’s get it done,” said Albert.

While Albert didn’t want to criticize the governor’s handling of the pandemic, he did ask why Justice has been “sitting on” CARES Act money.

“It’s a no-win situation with so many, because you’re going to be criticized no matter what, but he’s tried,” said Albert. “I just think that it’s time, though, that we have a different leader.”

Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin, meanwhile, criticized Justice for slowly rolling out the dollars and blasted his initial plan to invest $100 million into highways.

“That was crazy ... My god, I’ve never seen a highway or a pothole that caught the coronavirus,” he said in an interview with National Journal.

“When you have health departments that are hurting tremendously, not getting any relief, and he wants to put $100 million to the road program, when he just did a $2 billion bonding program for roads, it’s totally totally totally misrepresenting what it was for,” Manchin added. “If he thinks he’s going to play politics with it, I’m sorry—it’s not for that, it’s for saving lives.”

Should Congress provide more financial support in the future, Manchin would want the cash sent straight to the counties and municipalities rather than leaving the disbursement at governors’ discretion. Additional funds to ease the cost of the coronavirus on state and local governments was not included in the recent Republican Senate package, although Democrats have pushed for this in Congress.

Justice blasted Manchin in his press conference Wednesday after a reporter asked the governor about the senator’s criticism.

“What Senator Manchin ought to do is concentrate on the job that he has in D.C. and get that job done and get that job done properly,” said Justice. “He ought not concentrate so much on trying to run Ben Salango’s campaign. Can you not see right through this?”

Republican Sen. Shelley Moore Capito backs Justice’s pandemic response and is confident the CARES Act funding will be spent in a way that meets the needs of the state and local governments, Capito spokesperson Kelley Moore told National Journal.

“He’s communicated with West Virginians frequently—at one point, daily—and has responded quickly when we’ve experienced any sort of spike or outbreak,” Moore said.

But Democratic state officials, including Salango, lament that the governor’s daily coronavirus press conferences have become “infomercials.” In one presser in early June, Justice took a call from Trump.

“In a state that went heavily for Trump in 2016, it's a great way to remind voters, at taxpayer expense, that he’s close to the president,” said Democratic strategist Mike Plante, a longtime adviser for Manchin.

Justice on Wednesday called for lawmakers in D.C. to “lay aside this hatred for Donald Trump and all this politic gobbledy goop.” He again blasted Manchin for the “audacity” to criticize how CARES Act funding is being distributed.

Another congressional stimulus package would help business in West Virginia, said Justice.

“The train is waiting on D.C.,” he said.

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