Special session on funding for human services set to be held Sunday

West Virginia lawmakers expect to convene for a special session starting Sunday, focusing on the state’s level of funding for human services plus additional surplus spending priorities. 

 The expectation is that the special session will gavel in late Sunday afternoon with the likelihood of continuing into Monday. The schedule aligns with legislative interim meetings that were already planned for lawmakers at the state Capitol early in the week. 

 Gov. Jim Justice acknowledged that isn’t everything that needs to be done, but he described those as the priority for now. 

 “I’ve said time and time again that I would call a special session as soon as I heard that lawmakers were ready. I know additional matters need to be taken up, but for now, these are the issues they are ready to address, so I’m calling them in for a special session,” he said in a statement released Friday by the governor’s office. 

 Justice has consistently said he wants lawmakers to return for higher funding of state human services programs. And lawmakers have priorities to set for surplus spending that was left undetermined at the end of the regular session. 

 “The special session I’m calling today isn’t just really important; it’s critical to the health and well-being of some of our state’s most vulnerable people. In my book, restoring budgets for our Departments of Health and Human Services is the most pressing item on the call,” Justice said. 

 “We have hundreds of thousands of people in West Virginia who are relying on us right now, including foster kids and those with disabilities. If we don’t restore these funds immediately, it would be a real tragedy with real consequences.” 

 Justice, earlier this spring, referred to “a dog’s mess” — saying a budget that passed during the regular legislative session left human services funding far short of where it needs to be. 

 The progressive West Virginia Center on Budget & Policy think tank, in a budget analysis, described deep cuts to the state’s Medicaid funding. The budget for the coming fiscal year leaves Medicaid with a shortfall of about $147 million, according to the center’s analysis. 

 Furthermore, the level of state funding for intellectual and developmental disabilities waivers, commonly called IDD waivers, has been at the center of a simmering budget dispute among some lawmakers and the governor. 

 A large crowd of families gathered at the Capitol earlier this spring to push lawmakers to revisit a 10% cut to the program that was approved at the end of the legislative session. 

“We will obviously restore those dollars 100% to the governor’s proposed budget,” said House Finance Chairman Vernon Criss, R-Wood. “The people involved in all those items need not worry that the funding has been restored for the next fiscal year at the level that the governor has proposed.”  

 Lawmakers last month focused time and questions on whether West Virginia in recent years spent millions of dollars less than what was allocated for waiver programs meant to support people with disabilities, instead shifting dollars to expenses like COVID-19 testing or contract nursing. Those questions remain as some lawmakers continue to assess what level of funding is appropriate. 

 Sen. Mike Oliverio, R-Monongalia, acknowledged “we’ve received a lot of criticism regarding the IDD waiver program, but if you look back at the amount of money that we funded it was higher than what was used many years in a row. 

 “So some people were saying that we didn’t fund the portion that the governor had asked for, but if you look at what the actual expenditures were, we had funded far in excess of that.”  

 The response, Oliverio said on MetroNews’ “Talkline,” will be to fund more than $80 million for the Department of Health and the Department of Human Services. “And we’re going to say, ‘Hey, if you start to run low in these key areas, these priority areas of the people of West Virginia and of the Legislature, you’re going to have the ability to transfer funds into those areas.’”  

A second financial matter for lawmakers to resolve during special session is surplus spending priorities. The regular session ended with passage of “a skinny budget” that left many surplus spending possibilities undone because of other uncertainties. 

 One of the big questions was whether West Virginia would be on the hook for millions of dollars of federal COVID relief for school systems. A few weeks ago, federal officials gave official word that West Virginia has been approved for a waiver by showing good-faith financial support for education. 

 With that squared away, administration officials have described $500 million to $600 million in surplus spending still to be allocated. One of the big items is likely to be $50 million for an agriculture lab located at West Virginia State University. 

 “There’s still some money that’s just hanging out there that we put in the back of the budget,” said Delegate Jordan Maynor, R-Raleigh, this week during an appearance on “Radio Roundtable” on WJLS AM in Beckley. 

 Maynor added, “I think it’s pretty straightforward on the budget items. We need to take care of them.”