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West Virginia lawmakers approve funding in special session

Del. Vernon Criss, R-Wood, speaks in favor of moving $150 million in surplus dollars to the Division of Highways. (Photo by Steven Allen Adams)

CHARLESTON — Despite technical difficulties with voting systems, the West Virginia House of Delegates and state Senate managed to complete action Monday afternoon on funding requests from Gov. Jim Justice in the first special session of the year, as well as lay the groundwork for redistricting.

The Legislature passed seven bills Monday between noon and 2:30 p.m. Justice called the special session last week, coinciding with three days of June legislative interim meetings that wrap up today.

Most of the action was on the House side, where problems with the House’s system used for delegates to vote green or red on a bill malfunctioned. That required House Speaker Roger Hanshaw, R-Clay, to go old school and have lawmakers vote vocally one-by-one yay or nay.

Lawmakers approved seven bills, including giving the Department of Health and Human Resources and the Department of Education authority to use funds from President Joe Biden’s American Rescue Plan (ARP).

DHHR received spending authority for more than $809 million in appropriations from the ARP programs dealing with substance abuse prevention and treatment, community mental health services, energy assistance and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. The largest appropriations include more than $330 million for child care and development, more than $248 million for the Division of Health, and more than $152 million for the Division of Human Services.

The Department of Education received spending authority to appropriate $94 million in unused ARP dollars, including additional funding for the school lunch program. House Bill 2014 requires the governor to seek legislative approval for spending authority requests and appropriations more than $150 million of federal funds during a state of emergency.

The DHHR and Department of Education appropriations bills passed with no opposition. The same couldn’t be said for a request by Justice to transfer $150 million in tax revenue surplus for the current fiscal year ending June 30 to the Division of Highways for new secondary road projects.

While the state Senate passed all seven bills unanimously, House Bill 101 — the DOH appropriations bill — passed the House 91-5 with four absent. Del. Marty Gearheart, R-Mercer, led the opposition to the bill.

“I think we need to do what we’re supposed to do and make a little more consideration as to how we expend money that we direly wanted to spend to relieve taxpayers just a few short months ago,” Gearheart said. “Now, we’re just going to expend it all into one lump because it happens to be there in surplus.”

Gearheart said billions have already been spent over the last four years on highway construction and maintenance projects including the Roads to Prosperity program, allowing for the issuance of bonds not to exceed $1.6 billion to improve major roads and bridges as well as new road construction.

The state recently sold $200 million in general obligation bonds for the Roads to Prosperity at a 2.56 percent interest rate, generating $62.5 million in premiums. The $62.5 million will be used for secondary road maintenance. Justice also moved $50 million in federal C.A.R.E.S. Act funds for highway repair on roads connecting hospitals.

“We’ve got an awful lot of money going toward our roads,” Gearheart said. “I think we need to continue to improve the roads, but I think we needed to do it thoughtfully as opposed to just ‘man, we got some money, let’s go and spend it on the roads.'”

House Finance Committee Vice Chairman Vernon Criss, R-Wood, and House Technology and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Daniel Linville, R-Cabell, disagreed. State highways officials testified Sunday and Monday that the projects the $150 million would be spent on were already part of DOH’s long-term plans. But with highway and construction materials prices on the rise, the state wants to get started on those projects quicker to keep costs down.

“Taking this money at this time to use in projects that will be done during the next fiscal year … is a wise thing to do,” Criss said. “This is a good opportunity because it’s only going to get more expensive.”

“Fixing our infrastructure is one of the primary functions of government. It is the roads on which commerce happens,” Linville said. “The cost of materials is continuing to increase … we want to deploy these funds now because it is the fiscally responsible thing to do.”

The House and Senate also adopted resolutions Monday creating select committees on redistricting, with the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Government and Finance expected to create a joint redistricting committee later today. The state is awaiting detailed data from the U.S. Census Bureau before calling a special session to redraw congressional and statehouse districts.

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

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