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Justice rejects legislative requests for COVID-19 special session

MORGANTOWN — With no new pandemic-related announcements coming from the governor on Wednesday, a portion of his afternoon briefing was devoted to his response to growing calls for a COVID-19 special session.

A letter signed by 35 House Democrats sparked Wednesday’s discussion. It says the state needs to have a plan in place to address the pandemic response and conducting daily life into the foreseeable future.

“More importantly,” it says, “the citizens of our great state deserve to have their representatives be a part of developing such a response and plan.”

Under his emergency powers, it says, Gov. Jim Justice has acted essentially unilaterally for about four months, and that’s too long. It’s conceivable that unilateral power could continue for the course of the pandemic, perhaps up to a year.

It refers to the CARES Act money. “Neither you nor anyone else should in your administration should be operating under the false belief that you (or anybody else) should possess sole authority when it comes to spending $1.25 billion of taxpayer money.”

They ask Justice to call them into special session; if he doesn’t, they will work to reach the 60% threshold needed to call themselves into session.

Justice was asked, given the growing sentiment, if he is thinking of doing that so he can set the agenda or waiting on the Legislature to do it. He answered it once, then returned to it at the end of the briefing.

He mentioned a task force of legislators that was formed to work with him and has met once. “I’m going to continue to work with them. … I have not ever heard any one of our citizen that are out on the streets that are concerned or wanting us to call ouselves back into session.”

They’re concerned about returning to school grandma’s health, having a job, he said. Calling a special session in unnecessary and an unjustifiable expense, he said.

Later, he added, “I welcome total transparency. … I want us to have greatness for West Virginians in every way. … This is a rock-solid nothing but politics.” All the Democrats are on board, he said, along with some “unusual players” on the GOP side.

After the briefing, The Dominion Post spoke to Delegate Barbara Evans Fleischauer, D-Monongalia and a co-signer of the letter.

“He should read the Constitution,” she said. The legislative branch is required to approve all spending, and it’s important for the Leiglature to exercise the function the founders set out it regarding the $2 billion – the $1.25 billion plus $970.8 million in federal grant funds – on the table.

No one anticipated when they passed the emergency powers legislation that it would last so many months, she said. “It really important that we get in there and scrutinize this proposed spending.

“I think the governor has mainly done a good job but no one ever intended that one person was going to make all decisions for the whole state for months and months and months,” she continued. “That really flies against our whole history.”

Along with all the House Democrats, 23 Republicans have sent letters calling on the governor to call a special session, she said, so they’re close to the three-fifths they need on the House side to call themselves into session.

Senate Minority Leader Roman Prezioso previously told The Dominion Post that Senate Democrats held a virtual caucus and discussed their wishes but faced lack of appetite from the Senate GOP.

Senate President Mitch Carmichael and House Speaker Roger Hanshaw once again did not respond to invitations to comment on the tpoic.

Sen. Dave Sypolt, R-Preston, said Wednesday, “I would not mind seeing the governor call a special session,” noting that the correct term is extraordinary session. The governor’s call would limit the scope of the measures that could be taken up.

Both fortunately and unfortunately, he said, if the Legislature calls itself into session, it’s wide open. “I could see it become a politically motivated football.”

Other COVID issues

Justice talked again about his order closing Monogalia County bars for 10 days. He pointed t Department of Health and Human Resources figures showing Mon County has 436 active cases with 312 of them – 74% – falling into the age 18-29 group. And the bars, where that grup likes to congregate, are the highest-risk location for spreading the virus.

COVID-19 Czar Clay Marsh said again that countries around the world are seeing younger and younger people getting sick. “It’s important that people who are younger not be fooled or confused that they can’t get sick as well.”

Justice took a few moments to tout West Virginia’s leadership on a couple COVID-related issues.

One, he issued his mandatory mask order July 6. On Tueday, he said, the CDC followed West Virginia’s lead, as CDC Director Robert R. Redfield announced, “Cloth face coverings are one of the most powerful weapons we have to slow and stop the spread of the virus – particularly when used universally within a community setting. All Americans have a responsibility to protect themselves, their families, and their communities.”

Two, he just learned during the briefing that President Trump has urged state governors to use the National Guard to help hospitals collect COVID data. “Our great national Guard has already been doing it and I salute them in every way.”

Just just gets a note saying Trump calls on US Nat Guard to process COVID data, again following WV lead

Marsh and Bureau of Public Health Commissioner Ayne Amjad fielded a question on whether increasing COVID cases will mean a corresponding increase in the death rate in West Virginia.

Marsh said that controlling the rate of spread will help prevent a surge in cases and deaths. “You can’t save and protect people in communities where the spread has gotten to be quite rampant. So it’s really critical to be very, very resolute with our mitigation strategies,” masks, hand washing, social distancing.

Amjad said, “I believe COVID does not have to be that deadly.”

It’s important to detect the disease quickly through testing, get them isolated, have sufficient hospital capacity and sufficient PPE for health care providers to keep the disease under control and keep the death rate low.

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