WV lawmakers prioritize economic development not communities in allocation of remaining ARPA funds

In Wednesday’s edition of Statehouse Spotlight, state lawmakers are moving a bill to put the bulk of remaining federal pandemic relief to economic development, over calls from advocates for spending the money on communities.

A family planning bill passes, a bill to limit deliberate intent lawsuits will soon be up for passage in the Senate and the major education proposal to hire 2,500 teachers aides is still alive.

But first, most of West Virginia’s remaining federal pandemic dollars might soon be allocated to economic development.

Lawmakers poised to allocate COVID relief funds for economic development

Lawmakers are moving on a bill that would allocate the bulk of West Virginia’s remaining federal coronavirus relief money to economic development, over protests from advocacy groups that the money could be better spent helping poorer counties and marginalized communities.

The conflict centers around HB 2883, a measure introduced in the House at the request of Gov. Jim Justice. The bill would allocate the state’s remaining $678 million in unspent American Rescue Plan Act funds to a handful of state agencies. Due to federal guidelines, the state must allocate the money by the end of 2024 or send it back to the Treasury Department. 

The bill was introduced in January and received a public hearing shortly after, but went more than a month without being placed on a committee agenda.

That changed Tuesday when the proposal was approved by the House Finance Committee, which introduced and passed a committee substitute for the bill. The committee substitute uses new figures based on the House’s proposed budget and allocates the money differently, giving the bulk of the money to the Economic Development Authority and the Water Development Authority Fund, with smaller amounts to Marshall University, the Department of Economic Development and the Reclamation of Abandoned Property and Dilapidated Property Program Fund.

Lawmakers argue that bringing businesses to the state is a key priority. “I think the direction that we’re looking to go with is to promote and build good jobs,” said Finance Committee vice-chair Del. John Hardy, R-Berkeley, adding that “the best social program is a good job and a steady paycheck.”

Democrats on the committee countered that while economic development was a worthwhile goal, the money could also be used elsewhere, pushing for amendments that would pull some of the money allocated to the WVEDA and shift it towards local communities. The majority of the nearly hour long debate on the bill focused on a proposal from Del. Larry Rowe, D-Kanawha, that would allocate $300 million to counties based on their respective percentage of people living in poverty. 

The proposal comes from an “Economic Justice, Fairness and Equity Plan” created by the Charleston-based Tuesday Morning Group.

Proponents said reducing inequity is how the federal government intended for the money to be used, and that after years of failed promises and a lack of funding for programs targeted at marginalized communities, the ARPA funds represent a key opportunity to help. 

But efforts to put aspects of that plan into both the appropriations bill and the budget failed. 

Advocacy groups say the state is using the money to encourage zero-sum thinking that pits economic development against building up the state’s workforce. Hours before the committee meeting, representatives from roughly a dozen advocacy groups gathered to express support for the Tuesday Morning Group plan and called for HB 2883 to be rejected. 

“This is a defining moment and could be a historic moment,” said Rev. Matthew Watts, chairman of the Tuesday Morning Group. He added that the money presents an opportunity “to do something significant to move forward our most challenged communities, to change the trajectory of communities that have been oppressed, that have been exploited, that have been taken advantage of.” —P.R. Lockhart