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Fed CARES rules don’t allow for filling state budget holes; Gov. Justice optimistic that will change

MORGANTOWN — Sen. Shelley Moore Capito told The Dominion Post during a Wednesday press call that the CARES rules issued by the the U.S. Treasury don’t allow states to backfill budget holes caused by revenue shortfalls related to coronavirus economic downturns.

Gov. Jim Justice acknowledged that news on Thursday but expressed optimism that it won’t stay that way. He said he has some “inside baseball” knowledge he couldn’t share, but he expects a 10-day to two-week process to get the rules rewritten. “I feel really confident this is all going to work out.”

He’s said before West Virginia is looking at a budget hole approaching $350 million from lost income tax revenue and he’s expressed optimism all along that federal dollars would take care of it.

But he said during his Thursday coronavirus press briefing, “It didn’t surprise us at all to see the rules as they are.”

West Virginia has received $1.25 billion of CARES Act money that’s sitting in a bank account to deal with coronavirus issues, but cant tap it at the moment for the shortfall. But he’s still optimistic. “I feel like were going to be able to weather this financial storm in very good shape.”

He dismissed a suggestion of tapping the Rainy Day Fund now, and making state employee cutbacks, and refilling Rainy Day when the federal money is freed up. It wouldn’t be prudent to lay people off now then change course in two to three weeks when the fiscal year runs through June 30, he said.

“We have all time in the world to do what needs to be done,” he said. “We don’t need to do that, that would be silly.”

COVID-19 Czar Clay Marsh talked again about expanded testing as the state moves into Phase 2, beginning to reopen.

Expanded testing will need to focus on border areas – Monongalia County, the Eastern Panhandle, the Ohio border, which are open and exposed to community spread from across the borders, he said. Because people who are asymptomatic or presymptomatic can spread the disease without knowing it, it will be important to test in those areas to prevent community spread.

Testing will also need to focus on vulnerable populations, he said.

To test at the level West Virginia needs, he said, we need a national partner with greater resources than we have in-state. LabCorp has stepped up to do that. As Marsh said before, LabCorp Executive Vice President and President of Diagnostics Brian Caveney is a WVU alumnus and has committed resources to helping West Virginia boost its testing capacity.

Marsh said on Thursday, “Brian has really helped prioritize the needs and the goals of West Virginia in front of other places that are equally asking for their help.”

The Dominion Post asked Marsh about the timing of the expected roll-out of expanded testing, whether it might be days, weeks or months.

He didn’t say, but repeated that LabCorp provides the “very important partnership” to do the testing for community spread and vulnerable groups.

In-state facilities, he said, are great for testing related to contact tracing, clusters and outbreaks. But LabCorp can almost immediately double our capacity and allow for testing tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of people.

Justice said WorkForce West Virginia has processed 150,000 unemployment claims since March 1, compared to a typical March with 3,400 claims. But the resources the state has poured in has done the job. “We have now cleared the backlog completely with these claims.” Some still need some manual work.

He stepped away from COVID-19 briefly to say that the Department of Highways has awarded $216 million worth of Roads to Prosperity projects and the new paving list will be released soon. “We’re absolutely going to jump on every pothole, every pulling of every ditch and we’re just going to stay after it until we get across the finish line.”

Back to COVID-19, he said testing at all the jails has yielded zero positive cases, compared to a single Ohio jail with 2,000 confirmed cases. “It is remarkable and another tribute to all the corrections officers” and the department leaders and the whole system, he said.

Asked about possible moving the primary election date beyond June 9, Justice said no. He wants to polls to be open and to be safe. He doesn’t want an all-absentee election because “the level of corruption is rampant.”

It will be safe, he said, and the county clerks will be ready. “We’re going to be good to go Uune the ninth; we’re going.”

Justice also fielded a question about reopening the state in early May, as some others have announced. He noted that the Republican governor of Georgia announced an ambitious roll-out plan and got trounced by President Trump.

His goal, he said, is to keep people safe and get them back to work as fast as he possibly can. We will see more of a plan rolled out no later than Tuesday.

But we will also have to learn to live with the coronavirus until such time as drugs are available that – as the cardiology chief at Johns Hopkins told him this week – can reduce the virus form something deadly to the level of a common cold. And beyond that, until there is a vaccine, which might be a year or two away.

“Our country cannot endure the engine not running,” he said. But he’s depending on his advisors and the other experts to supply him with information for his decisions. “I’m listening to everybody.”

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