Governor Jim Justice has consistently made responsible and reasoned decisions in the state’s response to the Covid-19 virus. As a result, West Virginia has managed to avoid the worst of the pandemic, although we are not out of the woods yet, and won’t be for some time.
However, Justice is now running into opposition on his refusal to call the Legislature into session to decide how to spend the $1.25 billion allocated by Congress to the state to deal with the pandemic.
At least 60 members of the House of Delegates—both Democrats and Republicans—have formally requested Justice call lawmakers into a special session.
“Neither you nor anyone else in your administration should be operating under the false belief that you (or anybody else) should possess sole authority when it comes to spending $1.25 billion dollars of taxpayer money and, further, making decisions that affect every individual and business in the state,” the lawmakers wrote in a letter to the Governor.
The legislators have a strong legal argument. The state Constitution requires that money drawn from the state treasury must be by appropriation, and it is the legislature’s responsibility to appropriate.
Additionally, Article V makes clear that the three branches of government are “separate and distinct, so that neither shall exercise the powers properly belonging to either of the others.”
One branch cannot do what another is authorized to do. In this case, as the saying goes at the Capitol, the Governor proposes and the Legislature disposes.
Justice says he has consulted legislative leaders on how to spend the money and he bristles at the suggestion that he bring the entire House and Senate into the discussion.
“It’s nothing but political,” Justice said. “I have tried with all in me, and I have given you the very best I know to give in every way. I have tried with all in me to keep things from being political, to keep things transparent.”
Yes, tossing out over $1 billion to 134 lawmakers could turn into the ultimate food fight, but it is the job of Justice and legislative leaders to keep that from happening. The Governor should, just as he does with the annual budget, propose how to spend the money, build coalitions among the lawmakers, and fight for what he wants.
That would also provide additional transparency, which is essential when deciding how to allocate so much money. Justice’s explanations have not instilled confidence. One day he announces $100 million of the Covid money will go to roads (Roads?) and then a few days later, $50 million will go to roads and $50 million to broadband.
Those kinds of declarations feel haphazard.
However, right now the Governor holds the upper hand. It takes three-fifths of the members of each chamber for lawmakers to call themselves into session. There are enough votes in the House, but Senate President Mitch Carmichael is not interested in bringing his chamber back.
“I don’t think it’s necessary,” Carmichael told me. “There is no sentiment (among the majority Republicans) to have a special session. He (Justice) is working within the scope of his executive powers during a state of emergency.”
A quick review of how other states are handling the pandemic money shows many are including their legislatures in the process. Justice has made appropriate decisions during this difficult period. He should now make another one and include the people’s representatives in the decisions on how to spend the money.