Gov. Jim Justice remained adamantly opposed Wednesday to calls for a special legislative session on how to spend $1.25 billion in federal COVID-19 relief funding, calling it “nothing but politics.”
Legislators from the House and Senate, and from both major parties, have raised concern over Justice’s stated plan to spend the $1.25 billion in federal CARES Act funding without legislative approval, contending that he is using the coronavirus state of emergency to overstep his authority as governor.
“This is absolutely a rock-solid nothing but politics,” said Justice, who added that “about 100 percent of the Democrats” and “some unusual players” among Republican legislators are pushing for a special session.
Most recently, that push included a letter dated Wednesday from House Democrats, contending that Justice has been exercising broad, unilateral powers under the COVID-19 state of emergency.
“Quite frankly, it has been far too long for you to serve in a role that many have begun to describe as dictatorial,” the letter states. “Neither you nor anyone else in your administration should be operating under the false belief that you (or anybody else) should possess sole authority when it comes to spending $1.25 billion dollars of taxpayer money and, further, making decisions that affect every individual and business in the state.”
The letter closes by stating that, if Justice does not call a special session, “we will make whatever efforts we can to reach the 60% threshold in both the House of Delegates and the state Senate to call ourselves into session.”
Under the state constitution, the West Virginia Legislature may compel a governor to call a special session, with a petition signed by three-fifths of the members of the House and Senate.
That last happened in 1970, but then-Gov. Arch A. Moore Jr. superseded the petition by calling a special session himself, allowing him to set the agenda for the session.
Justice said he has heard no calls from the public demanding a special session, a session he said would interject politics into the appropriations process.
“Calling us back into session is unnecessary, it’s expensive and, absolutely, it’s just going to cost the taxpayers dollars,” he said.
Justice defended his plan for spending the $1.25 billion, stating, “I have absolutely worked as tirelessly as I possibly can. There’s no pet projects of Jim’s or anything in that CARES Act money.”
The governor said he has been working with an informal task force of legislators regarding the federal money and added that his decision to move $50 million of an original $100 million appropriation for highways construction to broadband expansion was the result of the legislators’ input.
Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and others have criticized Justice’s proposal to use federal relief money for road-building, calling it an improper use of funds intended to provide relief to local governments, businesses, and individuals hard hit economically by the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown.
Also at Wednesday’s COVID-19 briefing, Justice:
- Continued to urge West Virginians to wear masks.
“This right here is a power like kryptonite to Superman,” he said, holding a surgical mask. “This right here can stop this terrible killer.”
- Said he likely will have to take additional steps to control a surge of COVID-19 cases in Monongalia County, potentially including extending a 10-day closure of bars in the county, currently set to expire July 24.
“The bars, we know, are the No. 1 places we had to shut down,” he said.
Currently, West Virginia has a record number of 1,460 active COVID-19 cases, with 406 of those in Monongalia County. About 74% of the county’s cases are in the 18-to-29 age group.