CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — West Virginia lawmakers Monday poured federal funds and extra state cash into road repairs, health care, and education programs such as school lunches.
It was the Republican-led legislature’s first special session of the year, called by the governor to handle spending about $902 million in federal funds received through the latest round of pandemic aid. President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan passed Congress with no Republican support.
Much of the funds were grants directed by the federal government to be spent on programs such as substance abuse prevention and aid for needy families and for child care services.
Another $150 million from a state budget surplus was dedicated to road projects. Last week, Republican Gov. Jim Justice said it would fund 702 miles (1,130 kilometers) of road paving and projects on 40 bridges across all 55 counties.
West Virginia’s aging infrastructure often receives a failing grade. Voters approved a $1.6 billion bond measure called Roads to Prosperity in 2017 that Justice championed to improve public works.
The Senate and House had convened for the first time since ending their regular session in April.
One Republican senator took the opportunity after the break to snipe at Justice’s new sweepstakes for getting more residents vaccinated against the coronavirus and his reluctance to lift the statewide mask mandate sooner. Fully vaccinated people are exempt from the indoor mask requirement.
Sen. Randy Smith (R-Tucker) said he is “fed up” with the governor’s decisions and “wasteful spending.” Justice announced a vaccine lottery that will include prizes ranging from hunting rifles to $1 million. The first prizes are set to be announced June 20, which also marks West Virginia’s birthday and the day the mask mandate ends.
“I don’t believe we should be using money to bribe people to get something that should be their own personal choice,” Smith said, adding that “I’m not for the vaccine or against the vaccine.”
The governor and his health experts have pushed residents to receive the shot in regularly scheduled weekly news conferences, where he has trotted out his bulldog named Babydog in front of cameras to entice viewers. West Virginia’s vaccine lottery is now called “ Do It For Babydog.”
The efforts haven’t yet boosted a sluggish vaccination drive. Justice set a target for vaccinating two-thirds of eligible residents aged 12 and over by June 20. Nearly 60% of those eligible residents are currently at least partially vaccinated. The state has nearly met its goal of 85% coverage for ages 65 and over.
After Smith’s remarks, which also slammed Justice for his recent financial troubles, a lawmaker from the governor’s former party defended Justice.
“I don’t think the governor’s a bully,” said Democratic Sen. Michael Woelfel of Cabell County, adding that he applauded Justice’s attempt to encourage more vaccinations against a virus that has killed at least 2,821 West Virginians. “And I’ll finish by saying, let’s leave Babydog out of this.”