Justice invokes ‘advisory committee’ but doesn’t say who’s on it, when it next meets or if it should be open

Gov. Jim Justice has a legislative advisory committee for financial aspects of West Virginia’s covid response, but when asked he didn’t specify who is on it, when it next meets, what it oversees or whether the public should be able to see its discussions.

“I don’t know the legality of whether they should be open meetings or not,” Justice said Monday in response to a MetroNews question.

“But the people that are on the task force or the advisory force or whatever, you know, have been leaders in the House and the Senate in both parties. So from the standpoint of, there’s about — I don’t know — there’s eight coming from them and then us, and everything.”

The governor continued by saying he welcomes ideas but only talked generally about how to pass those on. He did not discuss the responsibilities of the legislative branch or oversight.

“But we’ve met several times and our people are talking back and forth with them as well as I, but we’ve met several times and we continue to do so and we continue to solicit any level of input,” Justice said.

“But if they be a delegate or a senator and everything, we encourage them — talk to their leadership, talk to their leadership and then let the leadership bring us the ideas and the thoughts and everything. And we want to be an open door, open book and take in as many good ideas as we possibly can, and that’s what we’re trying to do.”

Justice has been steering the allocation of $1.25 billion in federal relief.

During prior briefings about the state’s coronavirus response, he has described gathering with an advisory committee of legislative leaders.

The first time, June 26, was a lunch meeting just a couple of hours before the public rollout of his proposals for spending the federal relief. Legislative leaders who were there said they mostly listened to the governor describe his plans.

A few weeks later, the governor described another gathering of legislative leaders, July 24. In his public briefing, he went into some detail about conversations focused on how federal CARES Act funding would be used.

No one has described any gatherings in the past month.

Generally, participants have said those gathered included the Senate president, the House speaker, the majority leaders, the finance chairmen and the minority leaders, along with representatives from the Justice administration.

“It was the Jim show,” said Senate Minority Leader Roman Prezioso, D-Marion, suggesting the role of lawmakers is mainly to sit and listen.

“They meet when they call and tell us. There’s no scheduled meetings. It’s just who they invite or who shows up.”

Prezioso, in a telephone interview, described pushing for some of the federal funds to relieve strained local health departments. In his telling, the governor responded that the departments could apply for other funding generally available from the federal government.

“It fell on deaf ears,” Prezioso concluded.

Some legislators of both parties are on the record desiring greater oversight of the federal relief spending.

In the House of Delegates, a supermajority has signed requests to call a special session. In the Senate, most of the Democrats and a few of the Republicans have signed similar requests but the number falls short of the required supermajority.

Justice has consistently said he doesn’t want a special session.

“If they want to call themselves back in, let ’em call themselves back in and I’ll sit on the sidelines and watch but I’m not going to help them,” Justice said during a briefing last month.

Instead, he has repeatedly described open doors and a figurative suggestion box that legislators could use.

“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,’” Justice said last week.

“The doors are open. We beg you to come and give input.”

During this Monday’s coronavirus response briefing, Justice circled back to the topic of the advisory committee to say casual participation by others is all that’s necessary.

“You asked a question in regard to the legislators and the advisory council or whatever we call it that we’ve got, you know, formed and everything,” he said. “And I want to tell you this; they’ve given us great input. We don’t all meet together all the same time and everything.

“But constantly there’s input that’s coming from different members as to ‘What about this? Does this qualify? Does this not qualify? How does it all work, and everything?’ Constantly. That’s going on and we welcome it. We welcome it in every way. We’ll meet again, you know, with the whole group real soon, and everything.”

Justice went on to say his administration has the responsibility of relief spending handled.

“Just think about how it has been handled,” he said. “Why fix something if it’s working. Now we welcome all the input, just like I said.”

The governor contended money is flowing efficiently to local governments and to small businesses.

Justice often cites a U.S. Treasury summary depicting West Virginia as fourth in the nation in allocating CARES funds, although the report is a reflection of intent rather than actually moving money. Justice has allocated about half of West Virginia’s federal relief toward unemployment insurance. 

State records show that of the $1.25 bilion, $167 million had been spent through yesterday. That’s 13 percent of what’s available.

State agencies have put in for $265,691,113 in covid-related expenses. Some of that may be part of the $167 million that’s been approved.

Justice, ticking off financial goals that included saving much of the money for unemployment claims, described achievement.

“Have we absolutely isolated dollars from the standpoint of the unemployment just to ensure we’re not going to have our rates go sky high or go up period against our businesses and everything? Because they’re not. Because we put money over there to the side,” Justice said.

“So at the end of the day, from the standpoint of what we’re doing, I really, truly believe that we’re doing exactly the right stuff.”

Circling back to the advisory committee, Justice again offered praise but few specifics.

“We welcome the knowledge, we welcome the opinions, we absolutely try to address each and every one of them and everything,” the governor said. “And that’s what we do. And that’s what’s going on right here, and everything.”

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