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Justice expects West Virginia budget to be made whole by feds

In this March 12 file photo, West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice holds a press conference at the West Virginia State Capitol in Charleston. (AP Photo)

CHARLESTON — After a call with other governors and the White House Thursday, Gov. Jim Justice expects any hit to the state’s tax collections due to the coronavirus pandemic to be made up, though specific guidance is still lacking.

Justice briefed the press and public Thursday afternoon from the State Capitol Building in Charleston. Just before the start of Thursday’s briefing, Justice sat on a conference call with governors, President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence.

The goal of the call was to give states guidance on the possibility of re-opening parts of the nation suffering the least amount of coronavirus case. According to the Associated Press, states with declining cases and the ability to ramp up testing could start re-opening businesses and schools in a three-phase plan even though social distancing requirements will likely be left in place longer.

Justice is weighing public safety with the possibility of re-opening some businesses slowly in what he called phase two of the pandemic. Bars, casinos, and restaurants have been closed since March 17, and many other non-essential businesses were closed by executive order March 23.

March tax revenue numbers — driven by tax collections from personal income, consumer sales, and other forms of revenue — managed to come in above estimate, but state Department of Revenue officials have told Justice that the state will end the 2020 fiscal year on June 30 with a $376 million deficit or greater.

Despite calls to move money out of the Medicaid shortfall fund, call the legislature back into session to move money from the Rainy Day Fund, cutting services or laying off state employees, Justice said he doesn’t see the need to do those things yet.

“We’re not doing that,” Justice said. “At the end of the day, we’re going to get through this and be made whole.”

Justice is banking on $1.25 billion coming from the federal government from the C.A.R.E.S. Act. Justice said the state just received $625 million of that with the remainder coming next week. According to Justice, other governors asked Trump about whether that money could be used to help plug budget gaps other states are expecting, though there were no answers to the question yet.

“We don’t have exactly the rules as of yet,” Justice said. “On the call…with the president, repeatedly the governors were saying over and over ‘Mr. President, will you allow us to use the shortfall in revenue on the dollars we’re getting?’ The answer was ‘we’re going to do everything we can do to help, but it’s not done.'”

Justice said that 45 percent of the $1.25 billion is supposed to flow to counties and cities. But Justice believes that states will eventually be granted approval to use some of that funding for budget shortfalls.

“But if we can’t use it, we’re going to have shortfalls and have to look at Rainy Day or whatever it may be,” Justice said. “But Jim Justice doesn’t think that is going to happen.”

In other news, DHHR issued an emergency rule Thursday morning requiring essential businesses and operations to create written social distancing plans, supply access to disinfecting and hygienic supplies, and provide protective barriers to shield exposed employees from the public.

The rule comes on the heels of several executive orders aimed at 12 counties with the vast majority of coronavirus cases: Jefferson, Berkeley, Morgan, Monongalia, Marion, Harrison, Ohio, Wood, Jackson, Kanawha, Cabell, and Wayne counties. Those counties are under tighter social distancing restrictions.

According to the executive order, health departments serving those 12 counties are required to develop rules for maximum occupancy in businesses. Some, such as Kanawha and Wood counties, have set limits on two people in a business per 1,000 feet and creating one-way aisles.

The emergency rule filed by DHHR usurps the requirements put in place by county health officers over the last several days by allowing three people per 1,000 feet in stores where groceries make up 80 percent of sales. DHHR Secretary Bill Crouch said the emergency rule will provide an even playing field across the state instead of a patchwork of requirements from county to county.

According to DHHR, the number of positive coronavirus cases increased by 21 from Wednesday night for a total of 739 cases. The percentage of positive cases to total tests increased slightly from earlier this week to 4 percent. A death of a 56-year-old woman from Berkeley County raised the state’s death toll to 13.

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