By Stephen Baldwin, RealWV
February 10, 2023
Two weeks ago, a bill was quietly introduced to transfer $678 million (of state funds sent to us by the federal government) into three special accounts. If you haven’t heard about it, you’re not alone. A public hearing on the bill drew a mere 21 people in attendance, with all of them speaking against the planned funds transfer. Here’s the background.
In the spring of 2021, Congress passed the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) in the midst of the pandemic. West Virginia received $1.3 billion to spend on public health and infrastructure (additional ARPA funds went directly to counties and cities).
Half of that $1.3 billion has been spent so far. Expenses include water & sewer projects, economic development incentive packages (Nucor Steel and others), and lost revenue replacement during COVID. That leaves the other half, around $678 million, up for grabs. The deadline to commit the funds is December 31, 2024. If they aren’t committed by then, the state must return them.
If you were in charge of spending $678 million for the good of West Virginia by December 2024, how would you do it? What would you prioritize? Which projects would give you the most bang for your buck? How would you go about deciding? Who would you involve in the process?
Most people I’ve spoken with say they would sound the alarm statewide, do a full analysis of all areas of need, and eventually invest the dollars in human or physical capital expenditures that will pay dividends for years to come.
At the public hearing, speakers including Crystal Good, Matthew Watts, Kent Leonhardt, and Bruce Perrone made such arguments in last week’s public hearing on the bill. While each made specific proposals, they generally pitched spending the money to positively impact those areas of need which will not receive any other investments–state laboratories, workforce training, and minority health care, for example.
Elected officials have also made the case for investments in correctional facilities, schools, dams, flood mitigation, and other infrastructure.
All of these ideas and plans make good sense. But instead, HB2883 would redirect all remaining ARPA funds, $678 million, into three accounts. $500 million to the Economic Development Authority for future economic development incentive packages. $177 to the Water Development Authority for water and sewer projects. $1 million to Marshall University for an African-American community development center.
Speaker Roger Hanshaw referred the bill, which emanated from Governor Justice, to the Finance Committee. It has yet to be placed on an agenda for discussion.
Our state currently holds several large pots of funding. In addition to the $678 million in ARPA funds, we have a $2 billion budget surplus (over the last year and a half). Also, our Rainy Day Fund holds close to $1 billion. Finally, we are receiving $750 million per year for the next five years as part of a federal infrastructure bill.
If you total all of those pots together, we are talking about $7.4 billion. You read that right–$7.4 billion with a “b.”
This is a once-in-lifetime opportunity for West Virginia to rebuild, from the ground up. We only have a few years to get it right. HB2883 represents the first step in the process.
The first steps of the journey set the course. I pray our leaders will set the right course.