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Top White House officials say Congress might need to rush narrow relief bill to avoid unemployment aid lapse

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows said Sunday that Congress might have to pass a narrow piece of legislation this week to ensure enhanced unemployment benefits don’t expire for millions of Americans.

But they both also said the slimmed down legislation should include lawsuit protections demanded by businesses, a provision that Democrats have dismissed as a nonstarter for weeks. Democrats also oppose the White House push to extend the unemployment benefits at a dramatically reduced amount.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., has rejected the piecemeal approach, but time is running short because the temporary unemployment benefits are set to expire at the end of this week. These $600 weekly payments were approved by Congress in March.

After weeks of inaction, White House officials have displayed a new sense of urgency about the economy in the past week amid signs that the recovery is slowing markedly.

In addition to new calls for a pared down stimulus bill, White House officials are also planning to push for an eviction moratorium through the end of the year, according to a senior administration official. The Department of Housing and Urban Development is expected to be involved in this effort. A previous four-month eviction moratorium expires at the end of this month.

Bipartisan talks on the next coronavirus package have barely begun, and the White House and Senate Republicans have not even formally offered a GOP plan yet. House Democrats passed a bill in May that would extend the $600 weekly payments through January, as the unemployment rate remains above 11 percent.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., intends to roll out a $1 trillion package on Monday covering a range of issues, including a new round of checks to individual Americans. But Democrats are demanding a bill three times that size, and McConnell has said it could take “a few weeks” to reach a deal.

“Honestly I see us being able to provide unemployment insurance, maybe a retention credit to keep people from being displaced or brought back into the workplace, helping with our schools — if we can do that along with liability protections perhaps we put that forward, get that passed as we negotiate on the rest of the bill in the weeks to come,” Meadows said on ABC’s “This Week.”

Mnuchin made similar comments on “Fox News Sunday.”

“Within the $1 trillion package, there are certain things that have time-frames that are a bigger priority. So we could look at doing an entire deal; we could also look at doing parts,” Mnuchin said, highlighting fixing unemployment insurance and a liability shield. “We can move very quickly with the Democrats on these issues. We’ve moved quickly before. ... If there are issues that take longer, we’ll deal with those as well.”

Despite the comments from Mnuchin and Meadows, McConnell has not demonstrated public support for a piecemeal approach. Asked for comment Sunday, his spokesman pointed to remarks McConnell made last week touting the $1 trillion bill he plans to unveil on Monday. The legislation was supposed to have been rolled out last Thursday but that was called off at the last minute because of disagreement over unemployment insurance and other issues.

The $600 federal unemployment benefit was created by the Cares Act, which was approved by Congress in March. The extra benefit is paid on top of whatever unemployment insurance states offer, which vary but typically replace around 45 percent of a worker’s salary.

Republicans do not want to extend the full $600-per-week benefit, which they insist provides a disincentive for people to go back to work. Instead they’ve discussed a formula that would amount to 70 percent wage replacement of the salary a worker was getting paid before getting laid off. Mnuchin suggested on Sunday the federal payment would vary for each beneficiary based on what their earnings were before they lost their job.

Some economists say the new formula would effectively take the $600 weekly payment to around $200 a week, though Mnuchin stressed on Sunday it would vary from person to person.

In an appearance on CBS’ “Face the Nation,” Pelosi declined to say whether Democrats would accept an amount lower than $600 per week.

“You don’t go into a negotiation with a red line,” Pelosi said. “But you do go in with your values.”

State unemployment offices have been overwhelmed processing the benefit applications of the 20 million to 30 million currently unemployed Americans. Some experts have suggested switching to a new system would be time-consuming and difficult, but Meadows said they had been discussing it and believed it could be done if the federal government steps in to help state unemployment offices.

“It’s our goal to make sure that it’s not antiquated computers that keep people from getting their benefits,” Meadows said.

Mnuchin said the package that Senate Republicans will unveil on Monday will have a number of different elements, including aid for schools, another round of stimulus checks to individuals, and tax credits to encourage companies to rehire workers, among other things.

White House National Economic Council Director Larry Kudlow said on CNN that the 70 percent unemployment formula should be considered “quite generous by any standard.”

The U.S. economy contracted sharply earlier this year because of the coronavirus pandemic, with many state and local governments, as well as businesses, shedding workers and cutting back on spending. More than 20 million Americans lost their jobs in April.

Congress approved roughly $3 trillion in new spending and tax cuts to try to prevent the economy from completely collapsing, with additional aid provided by the Federal Reserve. The economy showed signs of recovering in May and June, but a new surge in coronavirus cases and a rise in deaths has led many states to pause reopening plans and the economy is showing fresh signs of weakness.

Wild Ramp hosts farmers market

A crowd came out to shop for produce and other items from The Wild Ramp farmer’s market on Saturday in Huntington. Various local vendors sold goods throughout the day.

14 new COVID-19 cases reported in Cabell

HUNTINGTON — The number of confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus continues to increase in the region.

The Cabell-Huntington Health Department reported 14 new cases of COVID-19 on Sunday, for a total of 272, with 119 of the cases considered active.

Statewide in West Virginia, there have been 261,591 total confirmatory laboratory results received for COVID-19, with 5,960 total cases and 103 deaths, according to the Department of Health and Human Resources (DHHR).

Cases per county (case confirmed by lab test/probable case) are: Barbour (28/0), Berkeley (593/19), Boone (70/0), Braxton (8/0), Brooke (47/1), Cabell (277/9), Calhoun (5/0), Clay (17/0), Doddridge (2/0), Fayette (117/0), Gilmer (14/0), Grant (41/1), Greenbrier (82/0), Hampshire (58/0), Hancock (81/41), Hardy (50/1), Harrison (161/1), Jackson (153/0), Jefferson (279/5), Kanawha (680/12), Lewis (24/1), Lincoln (47/2), Logan (89/0), Marion (155/4), Marshall (98/2), Mason (40/0), McDowell (14/1), Mercer (85/0), Mineral (96/2), Mingo (95/2), Monongalia (811/16), Monroe (18/1), Morgan (24/1), Nicholas (23/1), Ohio (230/0), Pendleton (27/1), Pleasants (6/1), Pocahontas (39/1), Preston (98/22), Putnam (146/1), Raleigh (130/4), Randolph (202/4), Ritchie (3/0), Roane (14/0), Summers (5/0), Taylor (39/1), Tucker (8/0), Tyler (11/0), Upshur (33/2), Wayne (174/2), Webster (3/0), Wetzel (40/0), Wirt (6/0), Wood (213/10), Wyoming (16/0).

In Ohio, the Lawrence County Health Department reported six new cases of COVID-19 Sunday in patients ranging in age from 59 to 72. While there are no new hospitalized cases, one recent case is in the intensive care unit. The county has a total of 204 cases with no deaths. The health department also reported that 108 cases are out of isolation, 96 cases are being followed and 154 contacts are being monitored.

Statewide, there were 84,073 cases as of 2 p.m. Sunday, with 3,307 deaths.

In Kentucky, 316 new cases were announced Sunday, with eight new cases from children ages 5 and younger. Kentucky now has 27,079 confirmed cases. There were also four new deaths reported, for a total of 700.

Nearly 65,000 new cases of COVID-19 were reported across the U.S. on Sunday, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, bringing the nation’s total number of cases to 4,163,892. There have been 145,942 deaths related to the virus.

Wheeling elects 1st transgender person to public office in WV; the LGBTQ reps say it's a sign of a changing tide

Rosemary Ketchum initially hesitated to get involved in politics.

“In my eyes, I felt like, while I secretly maybe wanted to run for office, it wasn’t a space I thought ... I was allowed inside,” Ketchum, 26, said. “I wasn’t even sure I had the permission to do something like that.”

After what she said was months’ worth of soul-searching, Ketchum decided to run for the Wheeling City Council. In June, she became the first openly transgender person in West Virginia to be elected to public office.

In addition to Ketchum’s historic victory, four openly gay candidates either were elected to office or won their June 9 primary races in West Virginia, according to Fairness West Virginia, a civil rights group based in Charleston. Michael Martin won a seat on the Berkeley County Board of Education and Rob Dunlap was elected to the Beckley City Council. In Randolph County, Delegate Cody Thompson, 33, won his Democratic Party primary race in his first re-election campaign. Ally Layman, 40, advanced to the general election for the Huntington City Council.

“West Virginia voters showed in the primary election they want their leaders to support equality for all people, no matter a person’s sexual orientation or a person’s gender identity,” said Andrew Schneider, director of Fairness West Virginia.

None of the candidates and new officeholders come from political dynasties, vast wealth or both, and they each had concerns when they were younger about whether they could participate in public service.

“I didn’t think it would be a possibility for someone like me to run, especially not in West Virginia,” said Thompson, who graduated from Elkins High School in 2005, where he now teaches civics. “I didn’t think someone could come from a middle-class working family and accomplish something in politics at that time.”

Ketchum recalled an interviewer asking her how “something like this” could happen in West Virginia last month.

“I think there’s probably no place better suited for something like this to happen,” said Ketchum, associate director of the National Alliance for Mental Health office in Wheeling. “In so many ways, our structures are broken, and our trust has been betrayed countless times. LGBTQ people are some of the most resilient, straightforward, compassionate people. Those are the folks we need to lead and serve our community.

“It doesn’t surprise me that we have really, really good candidates across the state who happen to be in the LGBTQ community running and winning.”

Four percent of West Virginians identify as being lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender, comparable to the national average, according to data compiled in 2017 by UCLA’s Williams Institute. West Virginia leads the nation in the share of people identifying as transgender, researchers found.

Political advances in the Mountain State have been hard-fought.

During his House bid in 2018, Thompson said, someone stole a campaign sign, marred it with a homophobic slur in red paint and placed it along an entrance ramp in his district. Delegate Eric Porterfield, a Republican from Mercer County, used the same slur during a Feb. 7, 2019, House Government Organization Committee meeting.

“That word carries a lot of hurt to me and to many people in the community, the LGBTQ community,” Thompson said.

The hurt was compounded by the lack of immediate consequences in the House and by additional comments Porterfield made in the following days, Thompson said.

“The inaction was insulting,” Thompson said.

In his first reelection bid last month, Porterfield finished last in his primary race. Finishing fifth out of five candidates, 2,022 people voted for Porterfield in his district, which includes most of Mercer County and a small portion of southeastern Raleigh County.

Thompson’s experience in the West Virginia Legislature has helped him further understand the effects words can have between different groups of people and that people’s perceptions can change over time.

“It may not happen overnight — that understanding and acceptance,” Thompson said. “It may not happen entirely at all but, slowly, people’s perceptions do change, and that has been a wonderful thing.”

Thompson follows in the footsteps of Charles Town attorney Stephen Skinner, who, in 2012, was the first openly gay person to be elected to the Legislature. He served two terms in the House before losing a state Senate race to Sen. Patricia Rucker, R-Jefferson, in 2016.

Skinner said the state has come a long way, but there is work still to be done. LGBTQ representation in the Statehouse does not match that community’s share of the state population.

“We have to understand that there are homophobic people around,” Skinner said. “There are racist people around. There are sexist, misogynistic people around, and we’re always going to have to understand that they’re part of the electorate. But I think what we’re looking at right now is that most folks in the Mountain State aren’t just tolerating LGBTQ people, but they’re accepting them.”

Skinner is a longtime organizer with the LGBTQ Victory Fund, a national organization that promotes equality for LGBTQ people in public office throughout the United States.

Last month, the Victory Fund released a report showing the number of openly LGBTQ elected officials nationwide increased 21%, to 843, last month over June 2019.

Martin, 23, said he was buoyed by the success of LGBTQ candidates last month, especially during a time when the state is losing population, particularly younger, college-educated people.

“It does give me hope that the state does still have a chance, that we still do have good people, and they understand we still are human beings,” he said.

Skinner’s encouragement boosted his run, Martin said. The marketing coordinator for River Riders, in Harpers Ferry, Martin ran in the wake of local scandal following the release of a recording that parents said depicted teachers verbally and physically abusing special needs students at Berkeley Heights Elementary School in 2019.

Thompson came up two votes short in a 2017 run for the Elkins City Council. Support afterward inspired his successful pursuit of a House seat, and his desire to better the state keeps him going now in the hope that more LGBTQ people will hold public office.

“It may not happen overnight — that understanding and acceptance,” Thompson said. “It may not happen entirely at all, but, slowly, people’s perceptions do change, and that has been a wonderful thing.”

Like Thompson, Layman said she is working to make the town where she grew up a better place. She will be the Democratic Party’s nominee facing Republican Dale Anderson in November for a Huntington City Council seat.

A social butterfly by nature, Layman is the manager of The Taps at Heritage, a downtown bar, and president of Huntington Pride.

“One of the biggest issues for me is making Huntington your home,” Layman said. “Huntington has now become very progressive in diversity and inclusion. With the Open to All campaign, that’s keeping people here and bringing people seeking community — not only Huntington as a community but as an LGBTQ community. That is something we are looking to provide is an environment of positivity and acceptance.”

She said people in West Virginia more and more are looking at candidates as whole people, not just their gender identity or sexual orientation.

“Being a lesbian is part of who I am,” she said. “It’s not all of who I am.”

Last month’s election results signaled to Ketchum that Mountain State voters are dedicated to creating a future of acceptance and support for all West Virginians.

“It’s going to take a long time to heal those wounds,” Ketchum said. “But this past election is the first healing of a lot of trauma.”