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Reporter’s Notebook: Clearing the air on C.A.R.E.S. Act

I feel like I’m copying Hoppy Kercheval, but he is right in noticing that the general election for governor feels like a three-way fight between Republican Gov. Jim Justice, Democratic Kanawha County Commissioner Ben Salango, and U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va.

This match-up becomes patently obvious when it comes to the $1.25 billion in C.A.R.E.S. Act funds for state, county, and municipal governments for COVID-19 expenses.

Salango and Manchin argue that the Justice administration is sitting on most of the money as a “slush fund” and refusing to get money out to counties and municipalities. Manchin argued last week that the U.S. Treasury Department requires states to give 45 percent of their C.A.R.E.S. Act monies to local governments.

In West Virginia’s case, that would mean splitting up $562.5 million between 55 county commissions and 230 municipalities. That’s not including 911 centers, parks and recreation commissions, sanitary boards, county ambulance authorities, and more. Unfortunately, it just not as simple as cutting checks, but Salango and Manchin are hoping voters don’t understand that.

The U.S. Treasury Department sets the guidelines and requirements for the $1.25 billion. Broadly speaking, the funding must be used for reimbursement for coronavirus-related spending only, can only cover expenses for things not already budgeted for, and must cover expenses between March and the end of December. But the Treasury rules are much more thorough than that and more complicated. So much so that the state hired a law firm just to help interpret the red tape.

While the Treasury Department recommends using 45 percent of the funding for county and municipal governments, it’s not required. Even if the state set aside $562.5 million for local governments, it can only be used for U.S. Treasury-approved COVID-19 expenses. You can’t just make it rain checks.

The state set aside $200 million for city and county COVID-19 expenses, which amounts to 16 percent of the $1.25 billion the state received in mid-April. An application portal was created on May 15 for county and municipal governments to send in reimbursement requests.

According to the State Auditor’s Office, the state has received 450 applications for reimbursement totaling $98.1 million as of July 24. So far, 300 applications have been approved for $56.9 million in reimbursements, while 150 applications are pending review. More than 28 percent of the $200 million allocated for local government reimbursement has been spent.

So, over a period of 71 days the state has distributed $56.9 million to local governments based on their COVID-19 expenses. Assuming this pace continues, that $200 million will last until Dec. 13.

Truth of the matter is that local government, just like state government, needs help replacing lost tax revenue they would normally have due to tourism, travel, and commerce. If the federal government or Congress would change the rules to allow for the $1.25 billion to be used for budget backfill, I have a feeling more than $200 million would be going out the door to local governments.

Another consideration is the fact that the money was given to the state to distribute with local governments as sub-recipients. If you recall, our formerly named Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management got dinged by the feds a few years ago for not monitoring the use of FEMA grant money by county and city sub-recipients. Remember Richwood in Nicholas County? There are still federal court cases against former city officials there for allegedly pocketing FEMA grant money.

It’s easy to think that money for emergencies and disasters needs to go out as quickly as possible, but too quickly and you end up with a situation like Richwood, involving waste, fraud and abuse.

I think it’s fair to criticize the Governor for waiting a month to set up the application portal, or wanting to park most of the money in case we get the green light to do budget backfill, or even wanting to use part of the money for road repairs. But I think there is ample evidence that monies to counties and cities are moving out consistently. As an election tactic, I just don’t see this issue playing with the public.

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Another issue being raised that won’t play with the voting public is the idea that every registered voter should be mailed an absentee ballot application like they received in April. There is not much evidence that this was an effective strategy.

In March, Secretary of State Mac Warner released an emergency rule (that has continued to be in effect despite people thinking the state just suddenly allowed this again) to let all registered voters vote by absentee ballot using the COVID-19 pandemic as a valid medical excuse. In April, all 1.2 million registered voters were mailed an absentee ballot application.

Leading up to the June 9 primary, a total of 262,503 West Virginians requested absentee ballots. There’s no way of knowing how many of these people returned the absentee ballot application postcard or filled out a full application at their local county clerk’s office or downloaded the form and mailed it in. But that means only 21 percent of registered voters requested an absentee ballot.

Only 18 percent of registered voters actually cast an absentee ballot in the June primary, accounting for half of the 450,909 ballots cast on June 9 — an election with 37-percent voter turnout. The estimated cost of mailing all 1.2 million registered voters an absentee ballot application was $900,000 — or $4 per person that cast an absentee ballot.

The Secretary of State’s Office decided to launch an online portal on Aug. 11 — the first day voters can request an absentee ballot — where voters can fill and submit their absentee ballot applications online instead of mailing an absentee ballot application to all registered voters in the state; that doesn’t appear to have brought more people to the polls.

If you look at Twitter, this isn’t good enough for some. They want applications mailed out again. They say voters will be confused (I don’t see how). But if you look at Facebook, some don’t want expanded absentee voting allowed at all. There are even some, during early voting and primary election day, that had their absentee ballot voided so they could vote in person after Gov. Justice lifted the stay-at-home order.

It appears the Secretary of State’s Office found a middle way. It not enough for some, it’s too much for others, but for most it will be just right.

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

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