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Lawmakers consider COVID funding bills

CHARLESTON — While bills dealing with congressional and statehouse redistricting are taking up most of the oxygen this week in Charleston, lawmakers are also considering more than half a billion in federal dollars for COVID-19 funding requests and other bills.

During the redistricting special session this week, members of the state Senate and House of Delegates are considering 32 bills up for passage as soon as later today.

Of the 32 bills, 14 bills are spending authority requests by various state agencies to use federal COVID-19 aid from President Joe Biden’s American Rescue Plan Act and other federal funding sources. The requests come to approximately $520.6 million.

Of that amount, the Department of Health and Human Resources would receive approximately $494 million in spending authority for federal COVID-19 relief dollars. Most of that would go towards medical services, such as covering the costs of prescription drugs, nursing home expenditures, COVID-19 response, school-based services, increases in Medicare Part B, and home and community-based services.

“These are due to newly federally-appropriated funds that the agencies received,” said Jeremiah Samples, deputy secretary for DHHR. “A portion of this supplemental is related to a large home and community-based service grant that was provided by the federal government. It’s actually, in total, to the tune of $500 million. The other portion of this funding is related directly to Medicaid expenses as attributed to the pandemic.”

Other DHHR programs that would receive spending authority include: $7.8 million for the Energy Assistance Program; $267,969 for COVID-19 testing kits for state mental health services; $11.1 million for the Consolidated Medical Services Fund; $50 million for the Division of Health central office benefits, expenses, and COVID-19 costs; and $218,330 for the Division of Health’s substance abuse and treatment program.

COVID-19 relief dollars will also be used for other agencies for spending authority, including $16.4 million for the Bureau of Senior Services for grants to county senior centers, $1.1 million for the Department of Agriculture for grant programs and the state lab, $765,000 for the Division of Culture and History for grants to non-profit arts programs that have canceled events due to COVID-19, $719,176 for the Educational Broadcasting Authority for emergency communications upgrades to its towers, $2.4 million for the Library Commission, $1.8 million for the Department of Veterans’ Assistance, $1.5 million for the state Veterans’ Home, and $2 million for the Commission of National and Community Service.

Another $5.9 million was requested by Gov. Jim Justice in transfers of unappropriated state funds from the previous fiscal year for current fiscal year programs. The Division of Culture and History requested $22,900 for current expenses and $50,000 for a women’s suffragist memorial. The Department of Economic Development requested $150,000 for global economic development projects, such as a trade office in Taiwan.

“There’s been a legislative delegation in both house working on this,” said J. Berkeley Bentley, general counsel for Justice. “It’s to set up a Taiwanese office for the government of West Virginia to advertise itself to businesses in Taiwan. The Taiwanese government here is going to cover all costs except minor personnel costs, and that’s why the supplemental … is only for $150,000.”

The Department of Education would receive $250,000 to compensate it for funding the West Virginia Professional Charter School Board after the Legislature forgot to provide the new board funding in the bill creating it during the 2021 session. The governor requested a $2 million transfer of unappropriated funds to the Civil Contingency Fund, $500,000 for the Division of Personnel, $30,000 for the Special Railroad and Intermodal Enhancement Fund, $250,000 for the Department of Transportation’s Office of Administrative Hearings.

Another $2 million would be taken from the Attorney General’s Consumer Protection Recovery Fund. A related bill would amend the 2021 budget bill and transfer $2.5 million – including the $2 million from the Attorney General’s Office — to DHHR’s Division of Human Services Medical Services Trust Fund.

Lawmakers are also expected to approve a bill setting the concealed carry application fee to $50, with half of the fee going to the West Virginia State Police. The State Treasurer’s Office is seeking changes to the WV ABLE program, a savings plan for people with disabilities. The bill would permit someone with signature authority to open an ABLE account on behalf of a designated beneficiary, clarifies that the Treasurer can require an application to open an ABLE account, and gives the office greater rule-making authority.

Other legislation includes:

* A bill to exempt the sale of aircraft sold in West Virginia, registered in another state, and removed from the state within 60 days from the consumer sales and use tax.

* A bill that would give similar authority to county boards of education already given to county commissions regarding decisions made by county boards of health or county health officers. The bill gives county school boards 30 days to approve health rules specific to school systems or the rule is void.

* A bill to raise the salary of the Lottery Director from $92,500 annually to $110,000.

* A bill creating a Courts Facilities Maintenance Fund for the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals. Funds would come from rent or other payments from tenants leasing space from property owned by the Supreme Court. Funds would be used to offset costs of maintenance of property.

* A bill making technical changes to the Intermediate Court of appeals regarding reviews of worker compensation claims and domestic violence proceedings. The bill would also allow the court to hold virtual hearings at the discretion of the court. Del. Tom Fast, R-Fayette, tried to offer an amendment to the bill to limit the ability to hold virtual hearings to specific circumstances but the amendment failed.

(Adams can be contacted at sadams@newsandsentinel.com)

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