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Justice says lawmakers can call themselves into special session but he won’t do it

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Gov. Jim Justice says the ‘suggestion box’ is still open for state lawmakers to give him ideas on how some of the federal CARES Act money should be used but he repeated Friday he has no plans on calling members of the House of Delegates and state Senate into special session.

Gov. Jim Justice

“If they want to call themselves back in, let ’em call themselves back in and I’ll sit on the sidelines and watch but I’m not going to help them,” Justice said at his coronavirus media briefing.

More than 60 members of the House, both Democrats and Republicans, and one independent have signed requests to convene a special session. That meets the required threshold but they would need the Senate to also come on board and currently that doesn’t have the same momentum.

“I really don’t see the reason to call ourselves into special session to address things the governor is taking care of within the executive powers,” Senate President Mitch Carmichael said during an appearance Friday on MetroNews “Talkline.”

Delegate Barbara Evans Fleischauer, D-Monongalia, said state lawmakers approve spending and the relief funds should be no different.

Barbara Fleischauer

“We think it is the right thing to do under our system of government which has three branches of government,” Fleischauer said. “The purpose of our founders was to make sure we have checks and balances, the job of the legislature is to appropriate funds.”

Carmichael said state code is clear that Justice has the authority to spend federal funds under the emergency powers act.

Delegate Pat McGeehan, R-Hancock, who worked to gather signatures from delegates from both sides of the aisle, told MetroNews Friday the section of code the governor’s office cites is very vague and constitutional law always trumps statute law especially when they come into conflict.

“The legislature makes the law and the legislature decides where and how to spend the public’s money, not the governor,” McGeehan said. “The governor may not like it but that doesn’t matter much. The truth must be imposed and fundamentals must never be dismissed.”

Pat McGeehan

The state has received more than $1.25 billion in CARES Act funding. Justice said he floated his plans for the funding to a task force of lawmakers made up of Republicans and Democrats about four weeks ago and opened the ‘suggestion box’ to them and other lawmakers but he didn’t hear much initially.

“I didn’t hear squat,” Justice said Friday. “For all practical purposes almost zero recommendations or suggestions.”

He said he’s continued to listen. Justice said the Senate recently came to him with the proposal to move $50 million of CARES Act funding from highway construction to broadband expansion. He said he also changed his plan when it came to small business grants making eligible those with just a single employee on their payroll.

“The suggestion box is open and continues to be open,” he said.

The plan includes: $200 million for county and local governments, $150 million for small business grants, $50 million for COVID-19 related highway construction projects, $50 million for broadband and nearly half, $687 million, of the $1.25 billion CARES Act to sure up the state’s unemployment trust fund which Justice predicts the state will eventually receive a forgivable loan to cover from the federal government.

Senate President Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson

Carmichael, who was defeated in the primary election, said he believes there’s been proper input made available.

“I don’t see a lack of input at all,” he said. “Senate Republicans and all the Democrats as well have had opportunity.”

Fleischauer said bringing the decision making process out in the open will help West Virginians understand the allocations were not only needed but fair.

“He can put out a budget but we get to vote on it and then he has an opportunity to deal with it too, but I want to make sure this is very transparent. I wanna see the fine print and make sure it goes where it’s needed,” she said.

Justice continued to call the attempts for a special session a political move in an election year Friday. He warned fellow Republicans that supporting a special session could backfire on them.

“These outcasts or oddballs that are running this scenario from the standpoint of the Republican side and if they don’t watch out they are going to gut their entire party,” he said.

McGeehan said every delegate he’s spoken with was coming from a very genuine place when they signed on to call a special session.

“Their intentions were above reproach. Any questioning of their motives is uncalled for. I would never call into question the governor’s motives. I think his intentions are very good. I happen to like the guy but unfortunately intentions just aren’t enough,” McGeehan said. “Regardless of how noble the intentions behind it are we cannot sit back and allow any one man to have this kind of arbitrary power for this long from day to day where one person essentially becomes the law himself.”

Justice, who said he doesn’t want to be king, said he is basing his opposition to a special session on a three-pronged approach.

“Our revenue people put together a great idea (his plan), the suggestion box is open and continues to be open and when we come back it will cost $35,000 a day to watch the circus,” he said.