With less than two weeks until the deadline, West Virginians are still in the dark about how — or whether — Gov. Jim Justice will spend more than $126 million remaining in CARES Act money, meant to be used for relief from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Despite teasing that the announcement was to come this week, Justice punted on Thursday. He proposed pay raises for teachers and state employees, but said later those would likely be funded through general revenue, not CARES Act money. Instead, he said several additional announcements will be made next week, including about the CARES Act money.
“We just had to postpone it just a little bit to really bundle it all up together,” Justice said at a press briefing. “We were going to tell you more and make more announcements today on the CARES money and things like that, but we’ll be doing that on this coming Tuesday, and it’ll be great big stuff.”
Justice, who has sole control over the funds, has put himself in a position where his back is again against the wall of an impending deadline; per federal guidelines, the money must be spent by Dec. 31. But West Virginians have been begging for CARES Act help since the state received $1.25 billion of the federal dollars in April 2020. Their calls — and the calls of advocacy organizations trying to help them — have gone largely unanswered.
While Justice has spent the majority of that $1.25 billion, the state stands to lose about 10% of the money if it’s not spent by the end of the year.
Justice’s spending practices have been long-questioned by critics who say the money didn’t go far enough to address the urgent needs of West Virgininians suffering from the COVID-19 pandemic.
More than a third of the money went into the state’s unemployment trust fund — way more than the state needed. Justice said doing so would lead to a “massive reduction” in business costs next year, but, for many West Virginia businesses, the savings are sparse and faraway.
“I don’t see that as massive at all,” Michelle Jack, owner of Sweet-A-Licious, an ice cream business in Buckhannon, said in September.
“There’s going to be a lot of businesses that won’t be around next year to take advantage of [the trust fund money]’,” she said. “Money is needed now to keep us afloat, not next year.”
Other money never made it to its intended target: Of $35 million Justice said was meant for broadband, intended to help West Virginians work and learn at home over the internet, the majority of that money did not go to internet service.
Some CARES Act-funded programs could have helped more people if they were available for longer, or included more outreach.
Justice spent around $16.5 million to help West Virginians with unpaid bills, a fraction of the $25 million that was originally budgeted. But the utility program only covered bills from March through July 2020.
Justice also put aside $150 million for small businesses grants up to $5,00o, 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 more was needed. But others reported not hearing about the grants until the deadline had gone by.
Other CARES Act expenditures haven’t necessarily had their intended effect, like several rounds of an incentive program to encourage West Virginians to get COVID-19 vaccinations. The lottery, dubbed “Do It For Babydog” after the governor’s English bulldog, has cost the state millions in CARES Act dollars, and the results from earlier rounds and other states showed that it hasn’t been successful.
“Quit trying to take the money and act like it’s a party,” said Pam Garrison of the West Virginia Poor People’s Campaign last month. “This is serious. People have died.”