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Justice offers nebulous plan to spend $1.25B in federal COVID-19 relief funds

Offering few specifics or details, Gov. Jim Justice on Friday outlined plans for spending West Virginia’s $1.25 billion federal CARES Act appropriation, and said he has closed a $285 million shortfall in the state’s 2019-20 budget.

Justice had drawn criticism from Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and others for sitting on the federal stimulus funds for two months, allocating only about $16 million in grants to cities and counties.

On Friday, Justice unveiled a plan that will direct a large chunk of the funds — $687 million — to replenish the state’s Unemployment Fund account, a fund that has been drained as coronavirus-related unemployment claims hit record levels.

Justice said that, without the stimulus money, the state would have had to make steep hikes in unemployment compensation taxes paid by employers to replenish the fund.

“This right here assures we’re not going to have to raise those taxes,” he said.

Other major pieces of the plan include $200 million for grants to city and county governments, $150 million for grants to 15,000 small businesses with 35 or fewer employees, and $100 million for “COVID-related highways projects.”

“We have absolutely vetted this from end-to-end,” he said of the plan, while addressing criticism that the West Virginia Legislature has been left out of the appropriation process.

“I believe the federal government’s directive is for me to administrator this,” he said of the CARES Act funds.

Justice said there are separate federal COVID-19 grants for Medicaid, child care, foster care, SNAP benefits and higher education and public education totaling more than $970 million.

Meanwhile, the governor said his administration will be able to sweep funds in reserve accounts and move Medicaid matching funds to close a $285 million shortfall in the 2019-20 state budget when the fiscal year ends Tuesday. Those moves, Justice said, will mean the state will finish the budget year with a roughly $10 million surplus.

“We’re going to have plenty of cash to go out to the end of the year, no problem whatsoever,” the governor said.

Under the West Virginia Constitution, the state cannot end a budget year with a deficit.

Justice said initial dire warnings of a budget deficit in excess of $500 million were avoided, in part, because many businesses and industries remained open at the height of state-ordered shutdowns and stay-at-home orders.

“You see, West Virginia, you never really closed, and the economic numbers have continued to be better than we thought,” he said.

In his first COVID-19 briefing since the forced resignation Wednesday of state public health officer Dr. Cathy Slemp, Justice made only limited comments about her ouster.

“I had lost confidence. There’s no point in belaboring that,” said Justice, who, on Wednesday, went on a tirade over erroneous figures on the Department of Health and Human Resources’ coronavirus website dashboard that resulted in the over-reporting of active COVID-19 cases by about 90 statewide.

“We’re sending out news that is completely the opposite of the good news we want to be sending out,” he said of the erroneous figures.

As for a replacement for Slemp, who spent 17 years at the DHHR and is a nationally recognized public health consultant, Justice said, “We’ll be filling that position ASAP. It will not be long at all.”

He indicated that one candidate for the position had been interviewed on Thursday.

Walking with purpose: Charleston teen and mom hitting trail to raise money for Manna Meal

The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step, but Bonnie Groce doesn’t have to walk a thousand miles — only 335 of them.

Bonnie, a 14-year-old Capital High School student and the daughter of “Mountain Stage” host Larry Groce, is joining her mother, Sandra, on a 335-mile trek from Pittsburgh to Washington, D.C., to raise money for Manna Meal, a Charleston center that feeds the hungry.

“I wanted to do a big community service project, but a lot of places aren’t open for volunteers,” Bonnie said.

As it happened, Bonnie’s mother, who a violist for the West Virginia Symphony Orchestra, had been planning to take a walking tour from the end of June through late July. While she initially looked forward to the solitude the trip would offer, “with all of this quarantine time, I didn’t feel like I needed to get away from everybody quite as much,” Sandra said.

With that, the pair hatched the idea of Bonnie tagging along and turning the trip into a walkathon to benefit the soup kitchen where they both had spent time as volunteers.

The next step was finding sponsors. Bonnie reached out to friends and her extended family. They came up with different sponsorship levels, from as little as 10 cents a mile to as much as a dollar. They broke down the costs and came up with a chart detailing how much she could make.

Then, Bonnie began sending emails.

“I wrote so many emails,” Bonnie said. “I’m sick of writing emails.”

They said their expectations were modest, almost pessimistic.

“I thought we might get $5,000,” Bonnie said.

“I thought, at most, $3,300,” Sandra added.

Twelve hours after the emails went out, they had $7,000 in pledges and “now, we’re at $22,000 and counting,” Bonnie said.

The Groces’ route follows the Allegheny Passage and C&O Canal Towpath. They said they hope to cover the distance in 23 days, which will require logging a little under 15 trail miles per day. The pair began training only a couple of weeks ago, progressing gradually from a mile or two up to about 7 miles per walk.

While it’s not likely to be a daunting task for Sandra, a long-distance runner frequently spotted logging miles around Charleston, the hike might not be a walk in the park for Bonnie, a ballet dancer.

“I’m used to getting most of my exercise indoors,” she said.

In addition to their camping gear and clothes, the Groces will be hauling Sandra’s violin and bow.

“It’s two pounds,” Sandra said. It’s also lighter and less valuable than her other instrument, a viola.

The gear is cumbersome, but Sandra said they packed conscientiously and were traveling relatively light. Because their route doesn’t venture too far from civilization, the two aren’t carrying a lot of extra food or water. They plan to spend their nights camping at commercial campgrounds, but also will sleep in a motel room a couple of nights and spend two nights with friends.

“We’ll be able to stop at gas stations and order pizza,” Sandra said.

They’ll also have their cellphones and an iPad, along with an assortment of spare batteries and chargers to power the devices. Bonnie said she plans to keep supporters updated on their progress via a website.

While the pair are hopeful to reach their destination in 23 days, inclement weather could delay their return to Charleston.

“We don’t know what we’re going to get,” Bonnie said. “We could get extreme heat or downpours.

“I’ll be in trouble with [Charleston Ballet director Kim Pauley] if I don’t make it back in time. I’m already missing, like, two days of rehearsal.”

Sandra said it is gratifying to see so many people willing to support her daughter’s efforts. Many who have pledged money are doing it, she said, not just because they believe in the good that Manna Meal does, but because they think well of her daughter.

“She’s a good kid, doing a good thing,” she said. “They want to support her, too.”

Tucker to remain in dual role overseeing WV's two- and four-year colleges

West Virginia will continue having one person lead the daily operations of its two- and four-year college oversight and policy agencies.

The board of the state Higher Education Policy Commission, which oversees the four-year schools, voted Friday to remove “interim” from Chancellor Sarah Tucker’s title. She became interim last year.

Since 2015, Tucker also has been chancellor of the separate community college system. She will remain in that role.

Tucker will continue making the $289,000 annual salary she has been making in the dual role, HEPC board Chairman Michael Farrell said. Each system pays half of that, although the community college system is solely responsible for $30,000 in extra deferred compensation pay she will receive.

Her contract with the HEPC runs through June 30, 2021, at which time her contract with the community college system also will expire. Farrell said that, at that time, her dual role can be extended.

The central offices overseeing the two systems already share most other staff.

Farrell said there were 28 candidates. Joe Delap, provost of Alabama’s Athens State University, was the only other finalist the chancellor search committee recommended to the full HEPC board. Farrell said at the start of the full board meeting Friday that Delap withdrew.

“We have come to the end of the search and have an excellent result,” Farrell said.

State law required a search for a permanent chancellor.

The power of the HEPC and its staff over four-year colleges has waned over the past several years. A state law passed in 2017 reduced the commission’s power over West Virginia University, Marshall University and the West Virginia School of Osteopathic Medicine.

On Friday, the board, as ordered by another state law (Senate Bill 760) that passed earlier this year, freed Shepherd University from regulation of its spending on things such as multimillion-dollar buildings and new academic programs.

The new law allows colleges freedom from this oversight if they meet any three of five criteria, such as a six-year graduation rate of at least 45% on average over three years. Once three or more criteria are met, the HEPC board must grant the freedom.

House Dems pass DC statehood bill

WASHINGTON — For the first time since the establishment of the District of Columbia 230 years ago, the House of Representatives voted to declare the city the nation’s 51st state, a legislative milestone that supporters say begins to right historical wrongs.

The vote Friday afternoon fell mostly along party lines. Officials in the District say not having statehood has led to the disenfranchisement of its 700,000 residents.

The White House confirmed Thursday that it opposes statehood, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky, has said he will not bring the legislation to a vote in his Republican-controlled chamber.

But that did not stop the celebration by statehood advocates and District officials who have pushed for passage of the legislation for years.

A video tweeted by the office of District Mayor Muriel Bowser, a Democrat, who watched the proceedings with aides and other statehood supporters at a restaurant on the Southwest Waterfront, showed her waving her hands above her head during the vote.

“Power concedes nothing without a demand. And statehood is our demand,” the fifth-generation Washingtonian said in a statement, referencing a famous quote from abolitionist and onetime District resident Frederick Douglass. She added: “I was born without representation, but I swear — I will not die without representation. Together, we will achieve DC statehood, and when we do, we will look back on this day and remember all who stood with us on the right side of history.”

Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, a Democrat who has served as the District’s nonvoting representative in Congress for nearly three decades, managed the bill for Democrats on the floor, doling out time for lawmakers from her party to speak and rebutting Republican arguments against statehood. In an interview, she said the experience was a thrill — with one major caveat.

“Every member got to vote on D.C. statehood except the member who represents the District of Columbia,” she said. “We’re close to putting an end to this kind of anomaly.”

The House voted on District statehood once before, in 1993. The bill failed 277 to 153.

This time, the legislation had 227 co-sponsors — a majority in the House. It passed 232 to 180, with 19 members not voting. The lone Democrat to oppose the bill was Rep. Collin C. Peterson, whose Minnesota district heavily favored President Donald Trump in 2016.

A companion bill in the Senate is co-sponsored by 39 Democrats and Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.

District statehood has become a civil rights litmus test for the Democratic Party’s left flank, particularly because the once majority- Black city — home to historically Black Howard University and a rich tradition of Black music from jazz to go-go — still has a population that is 46 percent African American.

Many Democrats in the House, including Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California and Majority Leader Steny Hoyer of Maryland, wore black face masks emblazoned with “51” on Friday to protect them from the novel coronavirus.

Bowser and others who joined her to watch the vote wore masks in the restaurant and socially distanced.

Pelosi said that, when her late father was in Congress, he was chairman of a subcommittee in charge of the District, earning him the informal title “mayor of Washington,” but he nevertheless supported home rule.

Trump administration asks Supreme Court to strike down the Affordable Care Act

WASHINGTON — The Trump administration asked the U.S. Supreme Court late Thursday to overturn the Affordable Care Act, telling the court “the entire ACA must fall.”

The administration’s argument comes as hundreds of thousands of Americans have turned to the government program for health care as they’ve lost jobs during the coronavirus pandemic.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., responded to the brief by saying there is “no moral excuse for the Trump Administration’s disastrous efforts to take away Americans’ health care.” Dismantling the ACA would leave more than 23 million people without health care plans, according to a recent analysis by the liberal-leaning think tank Center for American Progress.

“President [Donald] Trump and the Republicans’ campaign to rip away the protections and benefits of the Affordable Care Act in the middle of the coronavirus crisis is an act of unfathomable cruelty,” Pelosi, who on Wednesday filed a bill to expand the ACA, said in a statement.

The administration’s brief was filed in support of a challenge to the ACA by a coalition of Republican attorneys general, following through on Trump’s pledge last month to overturn President Barack Obama’s landmark health care legislation.

The filing came the same day that a government report showed nearly half-a-million Americans turned to the ACA in April and May amid COVID-19’s economic devastation. According to the Thursday report from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, 487,000 Americans took advantage of the special enrollment period on Healthcare.gov after losing their health care plans, likely among the millions of Americans who lost their jobs during the pandemic. The numbers mark a 46% increase from enrollments in April and May 2019.

Former vice president Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic Party nominee for president, said during a campaign trip in Pennsylvania on Thursday that axing the health care law as the nation is still reeling from the pandemic would amount to a double whammy for COVID-19 survivors. He said he worries insurers would view COVID-19 as a preexisting condition and, without the ACA, would be free to deny survivors coverage.

“Those survivors, having struggled and won the fight of their lives, would have their peace of mind stolen away at the moment they need it most,” Biden said. “They would live their lives caught in a vise between Donald Trump’s twin legacies: his failure to protect the American people from the coronavirus and his heartless crusade to take health care protections away from American families.”

White House spokesman Judd Deere brushed aside concerns that dismantling the ACA, or “Obamacare,” could worsen the pandemic crisis, saying in a statement to The Washington Post, “A global pandemic does not change what Americans know: Obamacare has been an unlawful failure and further illustrates the need to focus on patient care.”

Deere added, “The American people deserve for Congress to work on a bipartisan basis with the President to provide quality, affordable care.”

Oral arguments are scheduled for next term. It’s unclear if they’ll happen before the November election. A decision in the case might not come until 2021.

Trump has said he wants to protect health care coverage for Americans with preexisting conditions, which a White House spokesman reiterated Thursday night. But the administration has not presented a plan showing how it would accomplish that, and the Justice Department’s Thursday brief took the opposite position.

In the brief, Solicitor General Noel Francisco argues that all of the ACA should be struck down because one of its core provisions, the individual mandate, is unconstitutional, rendering the rest of the law invalid, as well.

Francisco argues that the individual mandate provision became unconstitutional when Congress reduced penalties to zero in 2017. Without any remaining tax penalty, Francisco argues, the provision no longer can be considered a constitutional use of Congress’ taxing power — the reason the Supreme Court upheld it in a previous challenge.

He argued that the provisions protecting Americans with preexisting conditions or high-risk medical histories are “inseverable” from the individual mandate and, therefore, should be struck down with it.

“Nothing the 2017 Congress did demonstrates it would have intended the rest of the ACA to continue to operate in the absence of these ... integral provisions,” he writes. “The entire ACA thus must fall with the individual mandate.”

As The Post reported last month, even some within Trump’s administration, including Attorney General William Barr, have urged a less-aggressive position against the ACA, fearing that advocating for its total elimination would backfire against Republicans in the election.

The administration previously supported preserving the law’s more popular provisions, such as the guaranteed coverage for those with preexisting conditions, but adopted a more stringent stance after a ruling from a Texas federal judge gutting the entire law. The ruling by U.S. District Judge Reed O’Connor, which reflected the position laid out by Francisco on Thursday, was put on hold as the case remained under review and now rests with the high court.

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, who is leading a coalition of states trying to protect the ACA, said Thursday night that, as more Americans die of COVID-19, “this fight comes at the most crucial time.”

“The ACA has been life-changing and now through this pandemic, we can all see the value in having greater access to quality healthcare at affordable prices,” Becerra said in a statement. “Now is not the time to rip away our best tool to address very real and very deadly health disparities in our communities.”