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Legislature will oversee priorities on $677 million in federal relief

West Virginia lawmakers will gather soon to determine the best ways to spend $677 million from the federal government, the House majority leader said.

Amy Summers

“We will be meeting in June to set forth how we, in talks with the governor’s office and how they think this money can be spent, we will be appropriating that,” House Majority Leader Amy Summers, R-Taylor, said today on MetroNews’ “Talkline.”

Millions of dollars in covid relief flowed to West Virginia a week ago, part of the American Rescue Act passed by the Democratic majorities in Congress. No Republicans in the U.S. House or Senate voted for the package.

Overall, West Virginia is receiving $1.355 billion with the second allotment coming in about a year.

Guidance from the U.S. Treasury says the money may be used to support public health expenditures, address negative economic effects of the covid-19 pandemic, replace lost public sector revenue, provide premium pay for essential workers and invest in water, sewer and broadband infrastructure.

West Virginia legislators passed a bill this past session to clarify their responsibility to allocate unanticipated revenue in excess of $150 million. The bill came about after lawmakers were not involved in any formal process to allocate the earlier CARES Act relief passed by Congress last year.

“We felt it was a necessary correction to the way government has operated in the past,” Summers said today.

“I think it’s just good government. I think our governor’s done a good job, but I don’t think it hurts to have a 134 other people weighing in on what the priorities should be.”

A special session to allocate American Rescue Act funds could coincide with interim legislative meetings June 6 to 8, although no date has been announced.

Jeffrey Pack

“It would be my expectation the governor would issue a call for us to be in a special session during the upcoming interim meetings in June,” said Delegate Jeffrey Pack, R-Raleigh, on “Radio Roundtable” on WJLS-AM. “Generally, those special sessions are called to coincide with interims since we’re all there anyway.”

He agreed, though, that it’s possible a later date would be announced.

Pack, who serves on the House Finance Committee, suggested that financial proposals by the governor and his staff would be a logical starting point for legislators.

“I’m sure he and his staff right now are formulating a plan for how they would like to see that money spent,” Pack said.

Last week, Gov. Jim Justice said his staff has been reviewing needs for the money to form a strategic plan. Justice said the administration would reach out to lawmakers this week to coordinate how to best use the money.

“We’ll be working hand-in-hand with the Legislature. I’m happy to do that and everything. Tickled to death to be completely transparent and get their approval, whatever it may be,” Justice said.

Pack said it’s clear West Virginia still has a long way to go toward broadband accessibility.

“Of all the problems we face in West Virginia, that’s  a big one,” he said. “It will be difficult for us to attract new people to the state until we address the broadband situation.”

Summers agreed that broadband is a priority, but she suggested there may be even more money coming to improve internet access. If that’s the case, she said, an early focus of federal dollars should be improving aging water and wastewater infrastructure in West Virginia.

“From my county’s perspective, we have water and sewage needs that need upgraded,” she said. “Our sewage system is old and needs some major work done to it, so that is probably where a lot of our dollars would go to.

“I know there’s going to be additional broadband funding that comes down. We will probably get some announcements in the spring of grants that have been awarded for that. We need broadband, but I think there’s other sources of revenue that might go in that direction. So let’s think about that when we’re making plans.”

William Ihlenfeld

Senator Bill Ihlenfeld, D-Ohio, said broadband should be a top priority “because that affects so many different issues in our state whether that’s children learning from home, people working from home, businesses being able to effectively operate, people wanting to move to West Virginia, whether those are individuals or businesses. We need to have broadband in underserved areas.”

That investment needs to be strategic, Ihlenfeld said on “Watchdog Radio.”

“One of the things we can do is not just throw it here, throw it there — we need to come up with more of a comprehensive plan to address how we can make broadband more robust in the underserved areas,” he said.

He agreed that water and wastewater improvements are also crucial.

“The planning is key,” Ihlenfeld said. “We have until 2024 to spend it. Now we don’t want to wait that long because the idea is to stimulate the economy, get people back to work, support our businesses, but we also don’t want to go so fast that we regret how we spent the money and that we didn’t put enough time and effort into planning.”

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