Justice provides update on COVID relief dollars, pandemic unemployment

CHARLESTON — Gov. Jim Justice said Monday that the state received the first half of $1.36 billion from President Joe Biden’s American Rescue Plan while announcing the state will have more details later in the week on the phase-out of unemployment benefits through the same Biden plan.

According to the State Treasurer’s Office, the U.S. Treasury Department sent West Virginia more than $677 million through the American Rescue Plan passed by Congress in March. The state will receive the remaining half of $1.36 billion later in 2021.

“My staff has been reviewing all the ways this money is needed, and working on a strategic plan on how we are going to proposed it be spent,” Justice said Monday during his COVID-19 briefing from the State Capitol Building.

State and local fiscal recovery funds through the American Rescue Plan can be used for supporting COVID-19 response efforts, replacing lost tax revenue caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, economic stabilization efforts, and public health improvements. It can also be used for water, sewer, and broadband infrastructure projects.

Unlike the federal C.A.R.E.S. Act that provided West Virginia with $1.25 billion last March, Justice will need to collaborate with the West Virginia Legislature on how to best spend the American Rescue Plan funds. House Bill 2014 requires Justice to submit any expenditure of federal monies during a state of emergency more than $150 million to lawmakers to review and approve.

“Next, we will begin reaching out to all of our Legislature’s leadership and working together to get this money out to West Virginians who need it,” Justice said. “We’ll be working hand-in-hand with the Legislature. I’m happy to do that … tickled to death to be completely transparent.”

Justice was criticized last year for not involving the full Legislature in how the C.A.R.E.S. Act money was spend and for the slow speed of expenditures. The state still has more than $602 million in unspent C.A.R.E.S. Act monies, allegedly being held to pay off a $157 million interest-free loan through the U.S. Department of Labor to keep West Virginia’s unemployment trust fund solvent once the interest-free period ends.

The State Auditor’s Office and U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., have being working with cities and counties on how to spend and manage the American Rescue Plan dollars coming their way. More than $679 million in state and local fiscal recovery funds will go to directly to counties and municipalities.

Justice also said Monday that he hopes to have more details Wednesday about creating an incentive program to encourage West Virginians receiving pandemic unemployment benefits to return to work. Last week, Justice announced the state would pull out of the federally funded pandemic unemployment assistance effective Saturday, June 19.

“West Virginians have access to all kinds of jobs right now in this great state and we need them back to work. Our small businesses, our economy depends on it,” Justice said. “I’m not talking to someone really struggling and trying to get back to work … I’m talking now to the people who are out there and decided for whatever it may be to take the bonuses from the federal government and just ride along. I think you need to be back to work.”

Despite West Virginia’s unemployment rate returning to near pre-pandemic levels, some businesses that offer low wages are having issues finding workers, claiming the $300-per-week extension of pandemic unemployment benefits pay people more to not work. Justice would like to see the state offer a dollar-for-dollar match to any business offering a signing bonus to new workers.

“If they put up $500, we’ll basically have an incentive bonus of $1,000 for anyone who comes back to work and works at least 90 days,” he said.

Justice said his office was also working on incentives to help small businesses who are unable to offer signing bonuses.

Steven Allen Adams can be reached at sadams@newsandsentinel.com


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