Business, Community, Congress, Education, Healthcare, State Government, West Virginia Legislature

State leaders, legislators air concerns, hopes for next federal COVID-19 aid package during Manchin virtual feedback session

MORGANTOWN — Inadequate broadband, still-struggling businesses and the governor’s one-man control of federal CARES Act money were among the issues state leaders and legislators raised with Sen. Joe Manchin during a Thursday “virtual feedback session.”

Congress is preparing to put together another coronavirus aid package – news reports say Congress and the Trump administration want it completed this month before the August recess – and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell plan to announce the GOP proposal on Tuesday, Manchin’s office said.

So Manchin held the two-plus hour feedback session to hear how CARES worked or fell short, and to gather suggestions for the next package. Leaders of 43 organizations from around the state and a handful of legislators presented their praises, complaints and wish lists.

Dale Lee, president of the West Virginia Education Association and Fred Albert, president of the American Federation of Teachers – West Virginia talked about the challenges of the school year tentatively set to begin Sept. 8.

If kids return to the classrooms, Albert said, they need to be healthy places.

It’s a scary time right now,” he said. “Its going to take money, we understand that,” for PPE and sanitation. “We’ve got to make sure our kids and our educators are in safe places before they go back to school.”

Lee noted that the House Heroes Act, which died in the Senate over objections to many non-COVID-related measures, contains $175 billion for schools to be able to bring kids back and he hopes the Senate package will keep that.

“We will not lose a generation of our students,” Lee said, “Our educators will get the students where they need to be,” whether that’s in classrooms or via distance learning. But many areas of the state, especially rural areas, lack broadband for kids to learn remotely.

Sen. Charles Clements, R-Wetzel, and Delegate Rodney Miller, D-Boone, echoed Lee’s point.

“Take a hard look at really progressing with our broadband,” Clements said. Large swaths of his 2nd District lack it, and kids have to leave home to access wifi.

Miller said, “We’ve got areas of not just desperate need, it’s beyond that.”

Sarah Tucker, Higher Education Policy Commission chancellor, said universities and colleges across the state lost money during the pandemic and many face closure. They need direct funding to replace the money they lost.

Aid to businesses

Mark Bias, with the West Virginia Bankers Association, said the Paycheck Protection Program – which provided forgivable loans to help small businesses stay afloat – was outstanding and did what it was supposed to do. Requests have dropped off considerably.

But the pandemic is lasting longer than anyone expected and businesses will need another round of PPP to avoid going under. Also, the process to request forgiveness is confusing and needs to be simplified. He suggested a simple affidavit for loan under $150,000.

Steve Roberts, president of the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce, agreed with Bias about the forgiveness problem.

He also was among those who said the next package needs some return-to-work incentives. The CARES unemployment benefits made it more appealing for many to stay home. Out-of-work employees need benefits but employers need to begin rehiring and there has to be a happy medium for both.

State CARES money

Criticism of how Gov. Jim Justice is handling the $1.25 billion of CARES money came from both sides of the legislative aisle. Legislators said it’s their job to appropriate money and the governor is blocking them from doing that.

“We have a governor sitting on hundreds of millions of dollars,” said Delegate Evan Worrell, R-Cabell.

Delegate Mick Bates, D-Raleigh, said so far the state has sent out only 5% of the total. And Justice has parked $687 million with WorkForce West Virginia for past and future unemployment claims.

The next package, he said, needs to be channeled directly to places and people that need it, through private and federal agencies, and not handed to governors. And no money should be sent until Congress figures out a way to make sure it gets sent to the right places.

Delegate Shawn Fluharty, D-Ohio, said, “We should be angry by now with what’s going on.” Justice is using CARES funds as his own Monopoly money in an election year.

Justice has set up a line of CARES money to provide $5,000 grants to businesses with one to 35 employees. But Delegate Evan Hansen, D-Monongalia, pointed to the closed bars and restaurants in Mon County and said $5,000 won’t keep them afloat for a week.

Other issues

Bill Kearns, representing county health departments, said health departments need direct funding. They’re on the front line of testing without any CARES money, and the fall-winter flu season is approaching, which will increase their workloads.

Jonathan Adler, executive director of the West Virginia Association of Counties, said property tax collections haven’t been affected yet, “but we’re certainly worried about the future.” As businesses fold and people lose jobs, they’ll move away.

Also, CARES doesn’t compensate for lost revenue, such as hotel/motel taxes and tourism income, he said. They need relief from that. Counties would also benefit from direct funding rather than having it channeled through the state. The application process is burdensome and confusing and states don’t apply the ever-morphing rules consistently.

Susan Ecnomou, with the West Virginia Municipal League, echoed that and added that because CAREs doesn’t cover shortfalls, many cities are looking to cut back on services. The next package needs more flexibility on how the money can be spent.

Chris Hall, with the West Virginia EMS Coalition, siad ambulance companies are struggling because they get paid by the ride and as many as 40% to 50% of their patients are refusing rides because of fears of hospital conditions during the pandemic. The coalition would like to see Congress craft a means to fund all agencies, not just those tied to local governments.

Delegate Danielle Walker, D-Monongalia, said Congress needs to send direct funds to minority community to address their health and economic disparities. Birth-3 programs should be extended to birth-4 to help stuggling parents. And there needs to be a moratorium on expulsions and evictions.

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