Gov. Jim Justice on Nov. 3, 2021. Photo courtesy Governor's Office.

It was October 2020. And with each passing day, the COVID-19 pandemic escalated.

West Virginians’ suffering extended beyond sickness and death. The virus had dealt a powerful economic blow, with many state residents struggling to meet their basic needs. With the coming winter, that struggle was soon to intensify.

Yet, Gov. Jim Justice sat on the majority of the $1.25 billion in CARES Act money the state had received the April before. And the clock was ticking; only a few months remained until the end-of-December spending deadline. 

Then, the federal government extended the deadline to spend CARES Act money until the end of 2021. Now, a month before the new deadline, Justice has spent most of the money, though some of it in controversial ways that critics say didn’t go far enough to address those urgent needs. And Justice hasn’t given any indication if he has a plan to spend the remaining money in the next month.

“There’s so many things that he could use that money on,” said Pam Garrison of the West Virginia Poor People’s Campaign about the $127,279,344 in CARES Act money the governor still had as of Nov. 24. And much like they did last year, her group and others are pleading with Justice to spend that money on the immediate needs of West Virginians.

Clock ticking on urgent needs 

West Virginia, which has one of the highest poverty rates and least healthy population in the nation, was particularly vulnerable to COVID-19. The pandemic hit hard, leaving West Virginians begging for CARES Act aid that has been slow to leave the governor’s coffers. 

“The CARES Act is really meant for our communities and people to get through the worst of the pandemic,” said Seth DiStefano, the public outreach director for the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy. “And I really don’t know that the governor did the best job of that.”

More than a third of the total $1.25 billion pot went into the state’s unemployment trust fund — way more than the state needed. Also controversially, the governor spent $50 million on road repairs. And Justice is currently holding the third round of a lottery meant to encourage West Virginians to get vaccinations. The lottery, dubbed “Do It For  Babydog” after his English bulldog, has let Justice travel around the state, awarding prizes to winners. But it has cost more than $11 million in CARES Act dollars so far and the results from earlier rounds and other states showed the approach was unsuccessful

“Quit trying to take the money and act like it’s a party,” Garrison said. “This is serious. People have died.” 

Where the CARES Act money has been used for urgent needs and small business support, it hasn’t reached as far as it could have. When Justice allocated $25 million for utility relief — an amount advocates said wasn’t nearly enough — only around $16.5 million was spent for the purpose. The utility program only covered bills from a limited time frame, from March through July 2020.  

When Justice began offering small businesses grants up to $5,000 to get through the pandemic, he put aside $150 million for the purpose, though he later lowered that amount to $40 million. In total, though, only $26 million was used. Some business owners said the money helped, even though they said more was needed. But others reported not hearing about the opportunity until the deadline had passed. 

“Moving forward though, I think there is an opportunity for the governor to do some good things with what money is left,” DiStefano said. 

Quick fixes

With only about a month left to spend the remaining $127 million, time is of the essence. 

DiStefano said additional utility relief as well as local government support would be a productive and, importantly, quick way to use the remaining funds. Some local government leaders have said they need more COVID-19 reimbursements as they faced the Delta variant surge.

With the economic blows dealt by the pandemic, many of these local governments have fewer tax dollars to work with, DiStefano said. And, while Justice is spending millions of CARES Act dollars to help hospitals and nursing homes, notably left out — despite great need — are local emergency services departments.

“First responders are out on the job longer, have to work overtime, have to do more with less,” DiStefano said. “One of the fastest ways you can get these dollars out the door is to just simply support local governments’ ability to maintain basic services.”

With so little time to spend the remaining money, DiStefano says the Justice administration has put itself in a position where it has to spend the money quickly — if it has not yet planned its expenditure. 

“I hope there is a game plan, but, as just an individual, yeah, I am a little concerned,” he said. “And I think everybody else should be a little bit concerned.”

The governor has made no public announcements about how the remaining money will be spent, and his office didn’t respond to a media request. The most recent plan for allocating the money was last updated online in October 2020. 

“People are suffering now, and people have been suffering for quite a while,” DiStefano said. “Why wasn’t this spent [earlier]?”

Déjà vu

On Tuesday, the West Virginia Poor People’s Campaign will meet to craft a letter to Justice urging him to spend the remaining money on West Virginians’ urgent needs. 

Garrison would like to see the remaining funds used for not only utility help, but also clothing vouchers — which she and others advocated for in the letter last year — as well as funding for resource-limited local governments and county health departments. She says these departments have struggled with resources throughout the pandemic even though they are lifelines for people who are poor. 

She said more CARES Act money could help vaccine outreach in rural areas, as well as help fund mental health programs, a need that has only become more obvious during the pandemic.

“[The pandemic has increased people’s] stress levels, their anxiety levels,” she said. “I know people that are disabled, they ain’t took them nowhere, they ain’t allowed to go out during this pandemic. They’ve had a year of isolation.” 

Allocating more money to mental health resources was also a focus of a recent West Virginia University Student Government Association resolution. 

The organization passed the measure calling for Justice to consider giving money to the Mountaineer Resilience Project, its initiative to increase mental health resources on campus. The organization passed the measure calling for Justice to consider giving money to the Mountaineer Resilience Project, its initiative to increase mental health resources on campus. While the students reached out to the governor’s office after the resolution passed in September, they didn’t receive any form of acknowledgement until Sunday night, when Roman Stauffer, Justice’s senior advisor, responded dismissively to a news story about the students’ request.

But Charleston native Azeem Khan, who wrote the resolution, says he’s heard from classmates who say more help is needed. “I am disappointed that without a meeting or any discussion a member of [Justice’s] staff chose to publicly dismiss the idea —  but I am still hopeful that the Governor will give the issue the time it deserves,” Khan said in a tweet.

Garrison said a letter urging the governor to prioritize West Virginians’ needs as the spending deadline approached didn’t get a response last year. And, while it seems like they’re in a similar position now, she said if they get the same lack of response, they’re going to push even harder.

“I think we need to go ahead and act now,” she said.

This story has been updated to reflect the response from Gov. Justice’s senior advisor to the WVU resolution.

Douglas Soule is a Report for America corps member who covers business and economic development. A Bridgeport native, he worked as an intern at the Charleston Gazette-Mail. He has served as editor-in-chief...