CHARLESTON — A proposed bill in Congress meant to provide $1 trillion worth of COVID-19 relief doesn’t do enough to keep West Virginians safe and give them access to the services they need during the pandemic, Sen. Joe Manchin said Wednesday.
Manchin won’t support attempts to bring the bill in its current form to a vote in the U.S. Senate until senators have the opportunity to properly vet and debate the Heath, Economic Assistance, Liability Protection and Schools Act, or HEALS Act, a sequel relief package to the CARES Act that Congress passed in March, he told reporters during a conference call Wednesday.
“I will not vote to get on the bill … until we have an honest, open debate to make the adjustments I think represent my state and all of rural America, definitely rural West Virginia,” Manchin said. “So that’s what we’re fighting for.”
Manchin also said he and other senators were working to prevent states from using the federal relief funding as a “political slush fund,” giving Gov. Jim Justice as an example of someone who wasn’t distributing the funds as Congress intended and against the guidance of the U.S. Treasury Department.
The HEALS Act is the GOP-written COVID-19 relief bill that’s set to provide $1 trillion in federal aid that includes economic stimulus checks and other support for education, public health, and other areas of need as determined by state and local governments.
Among Manchin’s concerns with the bill is securing funding to provide more internet access to rural areas and funding for rural hospitals.
Part of Manchin’s proposal includes $160 million to distribute devices that would let rural Americans establish broadband hotspots in their homes.
Manchin said the money would be used to supply hotspot devices to local libraries, where residents who don’t have reliable internet access could retrieve them to take home for use in online schooling or telehealth appointments.
Manchin said he also was advocating for $800 million of health care funding in the new bill to be specifically directed to rural public health including supporting rural hospitals.
Manchin, a Democrat, also said it’s his intention to use the HEALS Act to more clearly state in the law how states should disburse federal funds among state agencies and counties and local municipalities, saying Republican Gov. Justice and other governors, including Democratic Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards, weren’t correctly distributing the federal money.
“This is not partisan,” Manchin said. “We’re not calling out Jim Justice because I’m a Democrat and he’s a Republican. We’re saying a Democrat in Louisiana should not have that opportunity either, and we should stop that if we can.”
When Congress passed the CARES Act in March, each state was meant to split its total funding as guided by the U.S. Treasury Department.
The guidance was that each state kept 55% of its federal funding while the other 45% was to be distributed among counties and municipalities to support efforts to curb the spread of COVID-19 or supplement local budgets, businesses, health departments and other entities that have suffered losses due to the pandemic, Manchin said.
“They have that flexibility, but not if the governor has total control and says, ‘I’ll give it to you for this, but not for this,’ and, ‘I’m not going to give it to you because you complained,’” Manchin said. “That’s not the intent, and that’s not allowed.”
Manchin said Justice had kept all of the more than $1.2 billion for West Virginia in the state’s hands, when the bulk of the 45% in question, about $590 million, should have been distributed among counties and municipalities, based on population, COVID-19 cases and other specific metrics.
“We want to make sure that the 45% (is used) the way it was intended to be used and gets used in the direct way as far as disbursement, that the governor or the Legislature doesn’t have any jurisdiction over it,” Manchin said.
Manchin said the HEALS Act should have language that not only clarifies how money should be disbursed among states, counties and municipalities, but that it also should include language holding accountable officials who do not properly allocate their funds.
He said the language should apply to HEALS Act funds and retroactively apply to CARES Act money, too.
A total of $105.3 million has been spent from the state’s COVID-19 funds, according to the West Virginia State Auditor’s website Wednesday.
West Virginia had a balance of approximately $1,161,009,690 in its COVID-19 funds, according to the Auditor’s website.
“You can’t call it anything other than a political slush fund because why would you be holding all of that money up until closer to the election period?” Manchin said.
The Charleston Gazette-Mail asked Justice to respond to Manchin’s comments during the governor’s regular COVID-19 news conference Wednesday afternoon.
The governor said it was “an outright lie” that he was sitting on CARES Act funding. He said Manchin was grandstanding on behalf of Ben Salango, who is the Democratic nominee for governor against Justice this year.
“What Sen. Manchin ought to be doing is concentrating on the job that he has in D.C. And get that job done and get that job done properly,” Justice said. “He ought not concentrate so much on trying to run Ben Salango’s campaign.”
Salango issued a statement after the governor’s news conference.
“Jim Justice is using his taxpayer-funded press conferences to attack me,” Salango said. “We’ve asked Jim Justice to step up and help our small businesses, first responders, health care providers and all West Virginians. All he’s done is help himself.”