West Virginia is getting flooded… with money.
The state received $677 million from Washington last week, and a second tranche will be distributed next year, bringing West Virginia’s total to $1.355 billion as the state’s share of funding from the American Rescue Act.
That amount is equal to about 30 percent of the entire General Revenue budget. It is enough to make the late Senator Robert C. Byrd, affectionately known as the King of Pork, envious.
Of course, our children and grandchildren, and their children will have to deal with the consequences of massive debt, but for now the federal spigot is turned all the way on. The question for our state is, how will we use all that money wisely?
The U.S. Treasury has guidelines, but they are broad: Covid-19 response efforts, replacement for lost public sector revenue, economic help for households and businesses, and investments in water, sewer and broadband infrastructure.
Now it is up to Governor Justice and the state Legislature to break that down into more specific line items. Legislative leaders and the Governor have been meeting to begin to work out those details. House Majority Leader Amy Summers (R-Taylor) predicts a special session as soon as next month during interim committee meetings to finalize a plan.
However, Justice said during Tuesday’s briefing that may be premature, and he called for a cautious approach. “We could just frivolously throw and throw money at this,” Justice said. “So we’re just going to try to continue to do it right. We’re going to continue to meet.”
Summers is among those who believe traditional infrastructure should be at the top of the list. “From my county’s perspective, we have water and sewage needs that need upgraded,” Summers says. “Our sewage system is old and needs some major work done to it.”
Taylor County is not alone. A Charleston Gazette-Mail analysis found water and sewer systems across the state are badly in need of repair.
“An average of nearly a fourth of water flowing through West Virginia’s crumbling infrastructure is lost through leaks or main breaks before reaching customers, according to the most recent annual reports filed by 261 of the state’s 295 public water systems,” Caity Coyne reported.
But there are also broadband needs. West Virginia typically ranks near the bottom of states for high speed internet availability. The federal allocation includes $138 million for broadband. That funding can be combined with other pots of money, including $362 million from the Federal Communications Commission, to improve service.
I have sworn off using the term “game changer” to describe public and private sector promises of pending prosperity. I cannot recall any ever reaching the overly optimistic expectations. So, it is best not to get our hopes up too high about this federal largess.
However, the amounts of money flowing into this state now are historic. West Virginia’s state and local leaders need to take their time, conduct their due diligence, closely follow how the money is spent to reduce waste and fraud, and get this right. Even this much money won’t change the game, but it has the potential to improve the quality of life for many West Virginians.