Watts asks lawmakers to focus on people

By Roger Adkins radkins@hdmediallc.com Jan 27, 2023

A Charleston civic leader on Friday applauded lawmakers’ efforts in building the economy but said more work is needed to build the kind of people required to drive it.

The Rev. Matthew Watts appeared before the Senate Workforce Committee and asked lawmakers to use $300 million from the American Rescue Plan Act to fund job training programs that would benefit youths in the state’s poorest communities and help bolster the workforce. The state has a $1.7 billion budget surplus, which includes hundreds of millions of dollars in unallocated federal funds meant to provide COVID-19 relief.

Watts is senior pastor at Grace Bible Church on Charleston’s West Side. He also is the longest-tenured member of the Workforce Development Board, appointed in 2000 by then-Gov. Cecil Underwood and reappointed by every governor since. He is the president and CEO of the nonprofit Hope Community Development Corp., and chairman of the Tuesday Morning Group.

The Tuesday Morning Group is a faith-based political action group in Charleston that has been meeting for decades.

Watts and the Tuesday Morning Group recently sent letters to Gov. Jim Justice, as well as the Senate president and speaker of the House of Delegates, outlining a plan and a package of bills to use Rescue Plan Act funding to help the state’s poorest communities rebound from COVID-19.

The funds would be allocated to local governments based on their percentage of the total number of people living in poverty in West Virginia. For example, Clay County, which has approximately 1% of the state’s poor population, would receive appropriately $3 million dollars in state ARPA funds, Watts said.

Watts said the federal government intended American Rescue Plan Act funds to be used in distressed disadvantaged areas impacted by the pandemic. In order to get the funds, the state had to submit a plan, and West Virginia’s calls for “equitable” outcomes, Watts said.

Watts said the Tuesday Morning Group’s plan falls within the parameters set by the federal government, as well as the plan that was created by the state.

Watts asked the committee to read the letter and the Tuesday Morning Group’s plan, which is designed to mitigate the negative impact of COVID-19 by strategically investing in projects that benefit in the areas of health, housing, education, employment, economics and social services coordination. Watts said many of the programs he’s proposing to fund are the result of legislation that was passed in previous years but never implemented.

“You guys have an opportunity to be the unprecedented leaders that our state needs and to go down in history as the greatest Legislature in the history of the state of West Virginia,” Watts said.

The Tuesday Morning Group plan includes funding and expanding programs like the Division of Rehabilitation Services’ Career Pathways Program. The program only receives enough federal funding to include students with disabilities, but has the potential to expose more students to career pathways, Watts said.

“Every child should be exposed to it,” Watt said. “We have an excellent program in the schools, in every middle school and every high school in the state, but only a fraction of the kids who could benefit from it are receiving that. So we need to fund it and we need to expand it.”

Watts also called for using Rescue Plan Act funds over the next few years to expand summer work, academic enrichment, and career awareness opportunities for youths 14 to 18. He has benefited from programs like that, personally, he said.

“We cleaned refrigerators and stoves out creeks. We cut brush. Those who needed remediation received it, literacy and numeracy, during the summer. It needs to be funded. It needs to be expanded,” Watts said.

Watts’ plan also calls for developing a pilot project to improve job training and employment opportunities for at-risk youth, including those who are suspended or truant from school, as well as those involved in court cases or those in the foster care system. The plan also would develop and implement a pilot project to recruit 16- to 24-year-olds to register with a Workforce West Virginia American Job Career Center.

Sen. Eric Tarr, R-Putnam, offered a different approach. He believes the key to the state’s future is in job creation.

“I think we could probably have a healthy debate between you and I on how you would go in and redistribute those funds,” Tarr said. “I just think the path we’re going is getting to a lot of this.”

The state has a practice of enticing job creators through economic incentive programs, and it’s about to pay dividends by producing “tens of thousands of jobs,” Tarr said, citing projects like Nucor in Point Pleasant and Berkshire Hathaway in Ravenswood.

“Some of the investments that have gone through, to provide the infrastructure and provide the stimulus for jobs to come here, create a path for a lot of the things that you just described,” Tarr said.

Tarr said some of the state’s agencies are currently not in a shape to efficiently administer some of the social programs Watts is talking about funding.

“One of the problems, personally, that I have seen is that when we have come in and redistributed those funds to our agencies, such as DHHR, which has been an abysmal failure in enacting efficiently and effectively those funds to the ends that they should,” Tarr said. “The way that we get there is job creation. I think in order to get the job creation, we have to get the infrastructure of this state restored.”

Watts said he appreciates the need for job creation, but he also feels there is a need to create the people who are needed for the economy.

“We’re not developing the people that we need to drive this economy,” Watts said. “I think we’re on the same page. I’m just looking at it from the people standpoint, and I don’t see the people to really drive it.”

Roger Adkins covers politics. He can be reached at 304-348-4814 or email radkins@hdmediallc.com. Follow him on Twitter