Sen. Manchin Criticizes Gov. Justice’s C.A.R.E.S. Act Plans
CHARLESTON — West Virginia’s lone Democratic U.S. Senator took to the airwaves Tuesday to express his frustrations with Gov. Jim Justice, what he calls the slow pace of distributing funding to local governments and a plan to use coronavirus relief funds for highway projects.
Sen. Joe Manchin was a guest Tuesday afternoon on the Fox News Channel’s “Your World” with host Neil Cavuto. At the end of the interview, Cavuto asked Manchin to comment on a plan unveiled last Friday by Justice on use of the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act.
“My state has been a real Johnny-come-lately, the state of West Virginia,” Manchin said. “We’ve been pushing (Justice) to please get that out to where it’s supposed to.”
Manchin has been a critic of Justice’s handling of the $1.25 billion awarded to the state through the C.A.R.E.S. Act for state, county and municipal coronavirus-related expenses. The state received the $1.25 billion in mid-April. Justice, speaking Wednesday during his coronavirus briefing, said Manchin was just playing politics during an election year when Justice is seeking a second term as governor.
“Sen. Manchin is saying this and that and trying to throw out a political jab here and there,” Justice said.
The state waited until May 15 to create an online portal for counties and cities to apply for reimbursements in the hope that the U.S. Treasury Department would ease guidelines. The state wanted to use some of the $1.25 billion to fill potential deficits in the state budget caused by decreased tax revenue from moving the income tax deadline from April 15 to July 15 and shutdowns of all but essential businesses between the end of March and beginning of May.
Congress put $150 billion in the C.A.R.E.S. Act for state and local governments, including West Virginia’s $1.25 billion. The funding can only be used for necessary coronavirus expenditures incurred during the emergency, expenses that were not already accounted for in state and local budgets and incurred after March 1 through the end of December 2020.
Justice revealed his plans for the C.A.R.E.S. Act funding last week. Of the $1.25 billion, $200 million was set aside for coronavirus expense reimbursements for county and municipal governments. As of Monday, 106 applications for reimbursement have been approved totaling $18.8 million, with 79 applications under review.
So far, only 26 of the 55 county commissions have applied for C.A.R.E.S. Act reimbursements, four county ambulance authorities, three county parks and recreation commissions and Metro 911 of Kanawha County. As of Monday, the state received applications from 62 of 230 municipalities including from the Parkersburg Utility Board, Hurricane Water Works and the South Charleston Sanitary Board.
Of the $1.25 billion, Justice also set aside $687 million for the state unemployment compensation trust fund to cover fiscal year 2020 and 2021 and keep the fund solvent. WorkForce West Virginia has taken out a federal loan through the Department of Labor to keep the fund solvent, but state officials believe those loans will likely be forgiven in any new federal coronavirus relief package that could come from Congress later this summer.
Another $150 million will go toward a grant program for small businesses that employ between five and 35 people; $25 million will go to public service districts to cover customers who couldn’t pay utility bills during the shutdown; $16 million to reimburse the Governor’s Civil Contingency Fund; $57 million for state coronavirus-related expenses; and $10 million for new Fairmont Medical Center, the former Fairmont Regional Medical Center, now operated by WVU Medicine.
Lastly, Justice set aside $100 million for what he called “COVID-19 related highway projects.” Justice said the $100 million would be used for highway maintenance and repair for roads and bridges that lead directly to hospitals.
Justice said that fixing these roads would help keep residents in need of COVID-19 testing or care from driving far out of the way to get to hospitals and free up existing secondary road maintenance dollars for other projects.
“If you had a road or a bridge that was close to a hospital and everything, and people had to drive an hour out of the way because of a slip or whatever it may be, would the repair on that road possibly qualify. Our expert opinions and legal opinions said absolutely these roads qualify,” Justice said.
Manchin, speaking on Fox News Tuesday, said he had no idea how Justice was using any portion of the $1.25 billion for highways.
“I don’t know of a pothole that’s had the COVID virus,” Manchin said. “I haven’t found one yet, so how is he using it for highways and potholes and not using it for people is beyond me.”
Justice, in response, said that with the U.S. Treasury’s strict guidelines for using the $1.25 billion along with the pace of applications from counties and municipalities, the state needed to find additional uses for those dollars.
“We could see over and over and over that we were going to have excess dollars,” Justice said. “What does Manchin want me to do: send that money back to the federal government or try to find a way we can use that for West Virginia. We need to be able to use them for our roads.”
On Twitter, state Sen. William Ihlenfeld, D-Ohio, agreed with Manchin and urged the governor Wednesday to use that $100 million for other priorities.
“I know that we’ve got some really bad roads in West Virginia but investing $100 million in C.A.R.E.S. Act money into paving and potholes is not a wise use of these funds,” Ihlenfeld said. “I sincerely hope that (Justice) will reconsider his decision.”
Manchin announced his intentions June 13 of introducing a new bill to require states to push money out to local governments. The Local Government Relief Act would have required states to distribute 45 percent of C.A.R.E.S. Act funds they’ve received to local governments under 500,000 in population by June 30. States unable to meet the deadline would have been required to submit a report explaining why.
According to Manchin, only 22 states have distributed C.A.R.E.S. Act funding to local governments. Manchin told Cavuto Tuesday that lawmakers need to see how the money is used before he would support another round of funding for coronavirus relief paid directly to states.
“I’m a little bit reluctant when we start saying put more money and put more money into it,” Manchin said. “Let’s make sure what we’ve done has worked or hasn’t worked.”