Caputo calls for special session instead of governor's 'suggestion box'

In this file photo, W.Va. Del. Mike Caputo, (D-Marion), speaks against House Bill 4615, the Critical Infrastructure Protection Act on the House floor. This week, Caputo is speaking out against Gov. Jim Justice telling lawmakers to leave ideas on how to spend $1.25 billion in federal CARES Act funds in a 'suggestion box' instead of calling a special session to handle spending.

RIVESVILLE — Del. Mike Caputo has a suggestion for Gov. Jim Justice’s “suggestion box.”

“We don’t work at Walmart. We don’t put our suggestions in a box. We’re elected by the people of our district to be their voice,” said Caputo.

Caputo, (D-Marion), the House of Delegates’ minority whip who is running for W.Va. Senate this fall, is exasperated at Justice’s refusal to call a special legislative session to determine how to spend $1.25 billion in CARES Act money from by the federal government for fiscal relief during the COVID-19 crisis.

“When he talks about us sending ideas to him, that’s just not the way the legislative branch of government works. We don’t send ideas to the governor and hope he says, ‘Oh, that’s good’ or “No, that’s bad.’ We have to have discussions. We have to have facts in front of us. We have to have the available data in front of us,” Caputo said.

Justice has recommended members of the state legislature contribute ideas to his suggestion box.

“Anybody that comes up with an idea, anybody, bring them to the leadership then bring them to me,” Justice said during one of his recent COVID-19 briefings. “The suggestion box is wide open.”

Caputo said such an idea rankled him.

“The one thing that really bothered me about him is he said the ‘suggestion box is always open.’ Well, you know, that offended me, quite frankly. We don’t operate through some suggestion box. He’s got to get out of the 1960s and understand how government really works. A suggestion box? It’s insane to me, quite frankly. Insane,” Caputo said.

What’s even crazier is the fact the suggestion box doesn’t actually exist.

When contacted regarding the location of Justice’s touted suggestion box, a spokesperson admitted it doesn’t exist.

Nathan Takitch, the governor’s press secretary, said there’s no “specific physical suggestion box.”

“The governor is really talking more metaphorically, saying his door is always open and he’s willing to take suggestions from anybody who has them. That’s kind of more along the lines of what he was talking about than something literal or physical,” Takitch said.

The spokesperson’s clarification probably does little to assuage legislators like Caputo, who think Justice is blatantly ignoring government’s separation of powers as prescribed by the state’s constitution.

“I’ve been around state government for 24 years and he’s been around it for almost four. The one thing you learn early on, even from your civics class in the eighth grade, is the power of the purse is with the legislature,” Caputo said. “We certainly understand that in times of emergencies the governor has the power he needs to do things, but we don’t believe the constitution was crafted in a way that could give anyone that type of power for up to 11 months.”

The West Virginia Legislature meets for 60 days each year with the session typically beginning on the second Wednesday in January. Without a special session, the legislature will not meet again as one body for nearly six months.

“We live in a government that elects representatives from small areas of West Virginia where we talk with our constituents. I don’t know when the last time Governor Justice was out on the street talking to constituents. We see them all the time,” Caputo said.

Justice has suggested state legislators desire a special session in order to “play politics” with the coronavirus money.

“I find it ironic that he’s accusing us of just playing pure politics with this, when I think it’s absolutely exactly the opposite. Here, you have a guy who’s on TV at least three times a week and he’s certainly talking political in his briefings, there’s no question about that,” Caputo said.

Caputo said the members of the legislature are simply trying to help their constituents.

“Nobody I know wants to go down there and play politics, as he so calls it. We’re not looking for money for pet projects. We just want to make sure the money is allocated to where it’s supposed to be in an expedited manner.” Caputo said. “Small businesses are hurting. People are hurting. And there’s $1.2 billion sitting in the coffers. To me, that’s where politics is being played. No one person should have that kind of power.”

Caputo said a special session could be safely and easily accomplished by employing a combination of technology and social distancing methods.

“I certainly understand this pandemic is real and we have to be extremely careful to how we meet. But we can do virtual committee meetings. We can go into areas where we can socially distance. We can have the data presented to us electronically,” Caputo said.

Caputo said Justice won’t call a special session because he alone wants to decide how the $1.25 billion in CARES ACT funds is spent.

“Politics is being played by him so he can have the absolute power of his office to basically do what he wants with this type of money. It doesn’t work that way,” Caputo said. “I’m not being critical of him, other than him thinking he’s a know-all, do-all.”

A bipartisan group of 60 members of the House have signed a request to convene a special session. That figure meets the compulsory threshold required by law, but the state Senate must also agree to convene. There is no movement thus far in the Senate for a special session.

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