Normally, a state legislator wondering about the driving forces of state government might ask questions in a committee meeting. An audience of fellow legislators, reporters and the public could assess whether the questions were pertinent or answered fully by government officials.
That option isn’t available right now to Senator Bill Ihlenfeld, D-Ohio, so he has been sending Freedom of Information Act requests to the Justice administration to ask about its response to the covid-19 pandemic and its use of federal CARES Act funding.
“It’s frustrating,” said Ihlenfeld, a lawyer and former federal prosecutor.
Gov. Jim Justice, who regularly touts his administration’s transparency, has brushed aside calls from a supermajority of delegates and a number of senators to provide legislative oversight through a special session.
Instead, Justice has said he prefers ideas to be shared with him informally: “The suggestion box is open and continues to be open.”
Justice has described a couple of meetings with legislative leadership that he has termed a steering committee. Those meetings are not public and he has not specified who attends or any regular schedule.
But the governor said he’s issued a standing invitation to chime in.
“I didn’t hear squat,” Justice said last month. “For all practical purposes almost zero recommendations or suggestions.”
Justice repeated that sentiment during a briefing this past Friday.
“My door is always open. All of our doors are always standing there saying ‘just tell us what you think, tell us what you want to do, give us an idea,'” he said.
“The doors are open. We beg you to come and give input.”
Ihlenfeld says the suggestion box method doesn’t work well for him.
“The governor’s done some good things with his response. But one of the things he’s not done well is being transparent,” Ihlenfeld said.
“I think he’s got a few favorites, a few people he shares information with. I’m not on that list so I don’t get information that others might have access to.”
Ihlenfeld is putting his questions in writing.
He is one of 34 state senators, but right now his official requests for government information — which any citizen could make — are on plain paper identifying him as William Ihlenfeld of Wheeling.
“This is the first time I have used this method to gather information, and it’s not because I can’t pick up the phone and call someone on the governor’s staff,” he said. “I can call and email and text and I’ll get a response, but it’s not the substance that I need. It’s not the information that I need to know as a legislator, that the public deserves to know, when taxpayer dollars are being used.
“That’s why I decided to go a route that would allow me to go to court to enforce a law that’s on the books if I didn’t get a response or a response that was complete. I wanted to have some teeth in my request.”
Ihlenfeld has sent four information requests to state government.
Most recently, he asked for contracts and documentation about the “Kids Connect Initiative,” a $6 million proposal to establish 1,000 internet access points for students around the state.
Another asks for documentation about decisions shaping the “Medical Access Roads Program,” the governor’s priority to use $50 million in CARES Act funding for roadwork.
Ihlenfeld questions whether the roads selected in his district were priorities of local leaders or if the work is actually necessary for access to local healthcare.
Third, Ihlenfeld has requested documentation about the decisions surrounding West Virginia’s use of $1.25 billion in CARES Act funding.
And fourth, he asked for correspondence between the Justice administration and the U.S. Department of Treasury regarding allocation of the CARES Act funds.
Among his worries is that the federal government might determine West Virginia hasn’t been using the relief money properly.
“Quite possibly we’re going to have the U.S. Treasury department saying ‘You can’t spend the money in that fashion. Send it back,'” Ihlenfeld said.
He has asked for a briefing about state budget issues from the state Department of Revenue, but Ihlenfeld says he hasn’t gotten an acceptance.
Like others, he’s been left with the governor’s own description of what’s been done to handle the budget during unprecedented economic turmoil.
“This is probably one of the most uncertain financial periods our state has seen in a long long time,” Ihlenfeld said.
The senator said lawmakers and the public need specific information and context, for now and the future.
“How do we best utilize 1 and a quarter billion dollars and help to keep the economy afloat and keep people healthy?” Ihlenfeld asked.
“We need to talk about the future and how bad is it really gonna be and how much help do we need from the federal government?What’s severance look like in the out years?”
He concluded, “There’s so many questions to ask and the fact they’re not willing to go over all this and answer questions. That maybe more than anything concerns me, the fact that they won’t be transparent about the budget.”