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West Virginia lawmakers begin special session today

For health, education, transportation funding priorities

Lawmakers met Sunday for June legislative interim meetings and received more details on today’s special session. (Photo by Steven Allen Adams)

CHARLESTON — Lawmakers will discuss more than $1 billion in appropriations requests when they gavel in for a special session today of the West Virginia Legislature.

The House of Delegates and Senate convene at noon today. Gov. Jim Justice issued a proclamation Thursday calling the special session, which coincided with regularly scheduled June legislative interim meetings that started Sunday afternoon.

Justice is requesting the Legislature approve appropriations to move around unappropriated federal funds for fiscal year 2021 ending June 30 for the Department of Health and Human Resources and the Department of Education.

Justice also is asking the Legislature to approve the use of $150 million in surplus tax collections for the current fiscal year to fund secondary road maintenance projects across the state going into fiscal year 2022 starting July 1.

According to a project list released by the Department of Transportation over the weekend, the Division of Highways will use funding for 402 projects for 913.24 miles of work. Projects include road repaving, bridge repair, slip and slide repairs.

Byrd White, secretary of the Department of Transportation, answers questions about highway funding during a legislative interim meeting Sunday. (Photo courtesy of WV Legislative Photography)

Addressing lawmakers during a joint meeting of the Legislature’s Joint Legislative Oversight Commission on Department of Transportation Accountability and the Select Committee on Infrastructure Sunday afternoon, Transportation Secretary Byrd White said the money is needed now to get a head start on shovel-ready projects.

“There are projects in all 55 counties,” White said. “With this money, we intend to accelerate the completion of these projects. These projects were in our longer-range plan, but they were not scheduled until now.”

Sen. Rollan Roberts, R-Raleigh, asked why the amounts of funding differed from county to county. White said he has worked with DOH Deputy Commissioner Jimmy Wriston to focus more on completing projects than making sure counties are funded equally.

“The money that we spend in a county is secondary to what we got done in a county and what needed to be done in a county,” White said. “We need to get away from ‘we spent $100,000 in this county but we only spent $10,000 in that county.’ The needs of different counties cost different amounts of money.”

“I’m just trying to find an answer, so people don’t throw rocks at me,” Roberts said.

The $150 million will come from $389.6 million in tax revenue surplus from the first 11 months of fiscal year 2021. Year-to-date collections for the final 11 months of the fiscal year were $4.492 billion, 9.5 percent more than estimates and 12.6 percent more than the final 11 months of fiscal year 2020.

The $150 million request is on top of $62.5 million in premiums the state pulled down from its final bond sale for Roads to Prosperity projects. The state was able to sell $200 million in general obligation bonds for the Roads to Prosperity program at a 2.56 percent interest rate last month.

According to his special session proclamation, Justice is requesting the Legislature approve $809 million in appropriations from federal funds for Department of Health and Human Resources 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. For the Department of Education, Justice is asking the Legislature to appropriate $94 million in unused federal dollars, including additional funding for the school lunch program.

The federal funding comes, in part, from more than $1.1 billion in Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act dollars and partially from $1.9 billion West Virginia is expected to receive from the American Rescue Plan. That includes direct funding to the state and local governments, as well as specific earmarked funds for health and education. West Virginia received the first half of $1.355 billion in direct funding last month.

During the 2021 legislative session, lawmakers passed House Bill 2014, requiring the governor to submit any expenditure of federal monies during a state of emergency more than $150 million to the Legislature to review and approve. Justice and legislative leadership have been meeting over the last several weeks on planning for spending coronavirus relief dollars.

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

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