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Upheaval

Coronavirus creating chaos for the economy

West Virginia’s state budget, already in the doldrums, is about to take a severe beating. Blame COVID-19.

More important, many Mountain State residents are facing serious, perhaps financially catastrophic, trouble. State officials should be finding a way to help them financially.

We are not alone, of course. Economic upheaval is occurring throughout the nation. The coronavirus has closed businesses and placed an undetermined number of men and women on involuntary, unpaid leave.

Our economy in general is affected. Exhibit A in that regard is the stock market. A month ago, the Dow Jones Industrial Average stood at 29,232. At one point yesterday, it was down to 20,051 — having lost roughly one-third of its value in 30 days. That affects millions of people, including many older West Virginians, who have seen their retirement accounts shrink.

All of this affects the state budget, which is tied solidly to how well the economy performs.

No one can say, at least for now, how badly the downturn will hurt how many people in our state. Some simply cannot afford to lose even a single paycheck. Even those slightly better off will suffer severe, perhaps lasting, damage.

Gov. Jim Justice is well aware of all of this. To his enormous credit, he said nothing about how COVID-19 is affecting the state budget — though, rest assured, it worries him.

What Justice did do was to point out the financial harm being caused to his fellow West Virginians. “Our nation and our state are going to have to step up and keep you whole, as well as we can,” he said.

Help may be coming from Washington. Congress is considering an $850 billion relief package recommended by President Donald Trump.

Even that astronomical amount will not be enough.

West Virginians are not entirely unable to help ourselves, however.

Our state’s emergency “Rainy Day Fund” (actually two separate accounts) held nearly $860 million at the end of February.

Well, it is raining hard on West Virginia right now. This is an emergency for both state government and Mountain State families. This is precisely what the Rainy Day Fund was set aside to cover.

Certain state government services must be maintained. If COVID-19 causes a big drain on revenue — and it will — the Rainy Day Fund will have to be tapped to cover the deficit. The budget will require supplemental funding during the current fiscal year, which ends June 30, and probably for the next one.

That still should leave some money available for state officials to help the people of West Virginia.

As soon as possible, budget analysts should estimate how much of the $860 million will be available for that purpose. Surely a meaningful amount can be scraped up.

It has been suggested that Justice should call the state Legislature back into session to deal with COVID-19. That may be a good idea, simply to overcome bureaucratic red tape that hinders response to the virus.

Within a few weeks, however, a state relief package to aid West Virginia businesses and families should be devised. It should address cracks in the federal plan, through which many Mountain State residents and businesses could fall.

As soon as they can do while being prudent about the state budget, lawmakers should adopt a relief plan.

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