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West Virginia Considers $28.3M Transfer to Governor’s Office

The state’s Senate Finance Committee will look at transferring millions in federal COVID-19 funds to the Governor’s Office Gifts, Grants and Donations Fund, which already has more than $17 million.

A road sign that says "Welcome to West Virginia Wild and Wonderful Jim Justice, Governor"
(TNS) — A West Virginia finance panel of lawmakers will hold a hearing that will focus on the Governor's Office's transfer of $28.3 million in federal COVID-19 stimulus money that was unexpended at the federal spending deadline.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Eric Tarr, R- Putnam, announced on the Senate floor Wednesday, Feb. 1, that his committee will hold a budget hearing Friday morning that will scrutinize the shifting of the money to a Governor's Office-controlled fund.

That fund, the Governor's Office Gifts, Grants and Donations Fund, distributed $10 million to Marshall University days after that transfer last fall to support constructing a new baseball stadium.

"So there's been a lot of questions around how all that happened, and we're going to try to sort through all that," Tarr said upon announcing Friday's hearing.

The hearing is scheduled for 11:30 a.m. A review of the $28.3 million transfer will be the first item on the hearing agenda. Tarr said the second item will be a broader agency-by-agency budget appropriations review.

"So that could be a long Finance Committee meeting," Tarr said.

On Sept. 30, almost a thousand days after Gov. Jim Justice declared a COVID-19 state of emergency in West Virginia, $28,375,985 remained in the state's CARES Act cash balance, according to State Auditor's Office data.

There was $17,864,226 in the Governor's Office Gifts, Grants and Donations Fund as of Wednesday, according to the Auditor's Office.

The Governor's Office did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday.

West Virginia received $1.25 billion in funding from the CARES Act, which was passed in 2020. That means $2.26 of every $100 that the federal government gave West Virginia went unspent by the deadline to spend it.

Under federal Department of the Treasury guidance, any remaining amount from the Coronavirus Relief Fund established by the CARES Act not used for eligible expenses obligated by Dec. 31, 2021, must be returned to the Treasury. The feds consider unreturned funds a debt owed to them.

Rather than return the roughly $28.3 million to the federal government, the Governor's Office transferred it to the Governor's Office Gifts, Grants and Donations Fund, a fund that has been budgeted only $50,000 in recent years.

Governor's Office staff members say the state used CARES Act money to reimburse itself for previously paid COVID-related expenses, and therefore, the funding isn't subject to Treasury guidance.

"Let's say the state's [money is] green and the federal money's blue," Governor's Office Deputy Chief of Staff Ann Urling, a former banker, said in a November phone interview. "What would happen is, we'd spend green dollars and then reimburse ourselves with blue dollars. But once you reimburse yourself with a blue dollar, it becomes green because it becomes state money."

Governor's Office spokesman Jordan Damron said money transferred to the Governor's Office Gifts, Grants and Donations Fund likely would be spent on testing, staffing costs of local health departments and other agencies, personal protective equipment and vaccination distribution costs. Damron reported in October that the state Department of Health and Human Resources had racked up $45 million in invoices to be processed just for testing.

That same month, Justice approved $10 million from the Gifts, Grants and Donations Fund to be paid to Marshall University to support constructing a new baseball stadium, according to a letter from Justice to the Auditor's Office.

Justice's approval of the $10 million transfer came Oct. 5, five days after the $28.3 million in CARES Act money was transferred to that fund.

On Sept. 29, Justice announced a $13.8 million contribution to the stadium project slated for completion in March 2024. The governor joined Marshall University President Brad D. Smith and Athletic Director Christian Spears to make the announcement at the future home of Marshall baseball.

Justice, a Marshall alumnus, presented an oversized $13.8 million check to the university before throwing out a ceremonial first pitch.

The Governor's Office said the $13.8 million was to come from the West Virginia Water Development Authority's Economic Enhancement Grant program established through the Legislature's allotment of $250 million from the American Rescue Plan Act, a sweeping federal COVID-19 package enacted last year.

Water Development Authority Executive Director Marie Prezioso said in a December phone interview the Governor's Office later told her the agency only needed to provide $3.8 million of the approved $13.8 million, leaving $10 million left over. Prezioso said she wasn't informed why.

There was $252 million in the Economic Enhancement Grant Fund as of December, according to the Auditor's Office.

The Governor's Office has not responded to requests for comment on the $10 million transfer from the Gifts, Grants and Donations Fund to Marshall.

Prezioso and Governor's Office counsel Berkeley Bentley accepted invitations to attend the hearing, Senate communications director Jacque Bland said.

Tarr asked Revenue Secretary Dave Hardy about the late September transfer to the Gifts, Grants and Donations Fund during a Senate Finance Committee meeting last month. Tarr asked Hardy what the transfer was spent on.

Hardy, who presented a report on Justice's proposed fiscal year 2024 budget, referred that question to state budget director Michael Cook, who was not present.

Cook has not responded to requests for comment.

Members of the Senate Finance Committee sharply questioned Hardy about Justice's proposed 50% reduction in the personal income tax over three years, with some arguing that it would slash critical revenue for the state.

Some Finance Committee members voiced broader concern about potential for federal clawbacks — recovery of previously disbursed money. But there's been little scrutiny of the $28.3 million transfer or the $10 million support for Marshall's baseball stadium.

The $28.3 million transfer wasn't mentioned during Cook's presentation to the Finance Committee last month.

It also wasn't mentioned during a discussion of Water Development Authority funding opportunities, including the Economic Enhancement Grant program, after a presentation Prezioso gave to the House of Delegates Technology and Infrastructure Committee last month.

House Speaker Roger Hanshaw, R- Clay, has said he hasn't received any documentation to indicate there are any problems with CARES Act funding, Deputy Chief of Staff and House Communications Director Ann Ali said Monday when asked for comment on the $28.3 million transfer and $10 million payment to Marshall.

While Senate leadership has been skeptical of Justice's budget oversight, the House overwhelmingly passed Justice's personal income tax cut bill last month.

Jared Walczak, vice president of state projects at the Tax Foundation, an independent tax policy nonprofit, called the state reimbursing itself with CARES Act money for previously incurred COVID expenses "unusual." Walczak noted that the previously incurred expenses would have to be documented and eligible.

Kentucky spent all of its CARES Act funding and didn't use any CARES Act money after the Sept. 30 deadline to reimburse itself for previous COVID-related spending, according to that state's Governor's Office spokeswoman, Crystal Staley. Ohio and Pennsylvania spent all their CARES Act funding before the Sept. 30 deadline, according to spokespeople from the Ohio Office of Budget and Management and the Pennsylvania Governor's Office.

Urling said the global financial consulting firm BDO vetted West Virginia's expenses. The Governor's Office didn't contact the Treasury regarding the reimbursement of CARES Act money, Urling said, touting the BDO guidance instead.

Treasury spokeswoman Julia Krieger directed questions regarding coronavirus relief funding oversight and compliance to the Treasury Office of the Inspector General, which did not respond to a request for comment.

Hardy told the Senate Finance Committee last week that the Department of Revenue was "pretty involved" in CARES Act funding at the outset of the pandemic until fall 2020.

"[T]hen that was gradually moved over to the Governor's Office," Hardy said. "But we do offer calculations and advice in every way we can."

Hardy said the Governor's Office also has handled compliance with the American Rescue Plan Act. West Virginia still has $677 million left in funding from that law, passed by Congress in 2021.

The Governor's Office has recommended that $500 million of that remaining funding be transferred to an Economic Development Authority fund, with most of the remaining funding to be transferred to the Water Development Authority. The House Finance Committee will hold a public hearing on House Bill 2883, the Governor's Office-requested bill that would distribute the remaining American Rescue Plan Act funding accordingly, at 2 p.m. Thursday in the House Chamber.

(c)2023 The Charleston Gazette (Charleston, W.Va.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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