Gov. Jim Justice speaks during a COVID-19 press briefing on April 17, 2020. Photo courtesy governor's office.

After sitting on hundreds of millions of dollars in federal aid for much of the pandemic, Gov. Jim Justice has at the 11th hour earmarked the last of West Virginia’s CARES Act money to food banks and emergency responders — but also to longer-term programs with few details yet announced.

The governor said details of a $22 million back-to-work program, the largest single expenditure included in the last-minute announcement, would come later.

Justice’s announcement on the day before Christmas Eve included $7.25 million for food pantries and homeless shelters. The governor earmarked $10 million for an emergency management crisis fund for first responders.

But struggling West Virginians have for many months begged the governor to use the $1.25 billion he received in April 2020 for urgent needs created by the pandemic. Critics were pleased with Thursday’s announcement, but said it came later than they would have liked.

“A lot of that could have been already going to these agencies, could have already been helping people,” said Pam Garrison of the West Virginia Poor People’s Campaign. “I think it’s caused a lot of unnecessary suffering for people.”

At the beginning of the week, Justice had more than $120 million CARES Act dollars to spare. On Tuesday, he announced that $48 million would go toward setting up a program that aimed to train new nurses but provided no immediate help for West Virginia nurses who await another winter onslaught of COVID-19 cases expected to flood the state’s hospitals over the next few months.

His Thursday announcement laid out plans for the more than $70 million that was still unaccounted for. Under federal rules, the state had until the end of the month to earmark the remaining money, and until September 2022 to spend it.

“[The $7.25 million amount], for the whole state, that many food pantries, the way people are having to deal with it, I think a lot more should’ve been put into them,” Garrison said, citing the millions that went instead to multiple rounds of an unsuccessful vaccine lottery.

Seth DiStefano, the policy outreach director for the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy, said the money was a good first step to addressing food insecurity during and beyond the pandemic.

“We are clearly not done, and there’s a lot more left to do, and there’s a lot more the governor can do, with the resources at his disposal and just through public policy in general,” he said, citing making government food supplement programs more accessible to West Virginians.

The West Virginia EMS Coalition also said the money was a positive first step — and also pointed to longer-term needs. Although the state dispersed some aid to counties and their emergency agencies earlier in the pandemic, more recent requests for help had been ignored by Justice until the issue was highlighted by Mountain State Spotlight.

“We hope these funds will provide a bridge that will allow time for the Governor, Legislature, and other stakeholders to work together on a plan to address the long-term workforce and readiness needs of ambulance agencies in West Virginia,” the coalition said in a statement. 

The other places where the more than $120 million in CARES Act funds will be allotted are, according to Justice::

  • $6 million for the Salvation Army Potomac Division
  • A half million to Shepherd University for light therapy research
  • $3 million to WVU to expand remote work facilities, which will be open to the public and offer free WiFi
  • $1.5 million to support COVID-19 response activities at the State Fair site
  • $2 million to the West Virginia Game Changers, which works to prevent drug use
  • $2.7 million in Department of Health and Human Resources pandemic costs
  • $1.3 million more for the “Do it for Babydog” vaccine lottery
  • $3.3 million for COVID-19 administrative costs 
  • $15.2 million for state agencies to cover COVID-19 costs

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...