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Meet the Bontas: Can the spouse of the attorney general oversee his budget?

California Attorney General Rob Bonta, talks with his wife, Assemblywoman Mia Bonta, D-Oakland,
California Atty. Gen. Rob Bonta and his wife, Assemblywoman Mia Bonta (D-Oakland).
(Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press)
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Good morning, and welcome to the Essential California newsletter.

It’s Wednesday, Feb. 22. I’m Anita Chabria, a columnist for The Times, coming to you from Sacramento, where a false spring has sprung, leaving cherry blossoms spiraling in the wind of our impending statewide storm.

That’s a bit of foreshadowing to a tale of political turbulence.

The Legislature is in full swing, cranking out bills on social media (regulating it), police dogs (banning them in chases) and fentanyl (bipartisanly considered bad). In fact, legislators introduced 500 bills on Friday’s deadline for doing so, bringing this year’s tally to a record-breaking 2,600.

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But despite all those proposed laws, the big gossip under the dome was a potential conflict of interest for Assemblywoman Mia Bonta and her spouse, California Atty. Gen. Rob Bonta — a political power couple with a history of ethics questions.

The assemblywoman was recently appointed as chair of the arcane-sounding but important Assembly Budget Subcommittee 5. That committee oversees Mr. Bonta’s budget — $1.2 billion last year — and her role raises questions about whether a lawmaker should wield the public purse strings of a partner.

Short answer: not a great look.

It is, however, legal. There are no rules on the books banning Mia Bonta from overseeing budgeting discussions on her husband’s office. But it doesn’t happen so often that laws have been necessary. Until recent years, diversity in the Capitol mostly consisted of differentiating young white men from old white men.

At first, Mia Bonta argued to reporters and critics that there was nothing untoward in the arrangement and that the budget process of her committee would be transparent. She also, however, attacked the KCRA reporter who raised the questions, insinuating that even asking about the potential for an ethical issue was sexist and racist.

That reporter, Ashley Zavala, an excellent journalist known for her fairness and deep grasp of policy, persisted. Zavala dogged Mia Bonta in the Capitol, asking her about the conflict as the assemblywoman fled into an elevator after offering a prepared statement Friday.

But shortly after, Mia Bonta issued another statement recusing herself from any committee business involving the Department of Justice. She wrote that it was “abundantly clear” that there was no legal or ethical conflict but that she, like all legislators, had an obligation to ensure that “the people of California have absolute confidence” in the integrity of the legislative process.

On that, you will get no argument from me. So, situation resolved, thanks to the tenaciousness of Zavala and other reporters who know that asking hard questions isn’t part of the job, it is the job.

And now, here’s what’s happening across California.

L.A. STORIES

Enough already: Most of California could see snow this week, including the Santa Monica Mountains. A powerful winter storm is expected to sweep across California this week, bringing cold temperatures, cutting winds and snowfall at remarkably low elevations almost statewide. Los Angeles Times

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Housekeeper’s husband is arrested in slaying of L.A. Bishop David G. O’Connell. Authorities have arrested the husband of a woman who worked as a housekeeper for Auxiliary Bishop David G. O’Connell in connection with the slaying of the beloved Los Angeles cleric, officials said Monday. Los Angeles Times

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These days, waking up to current events can be, well, daunting. If you’re seeking a more balanced news diet, “The Times” podcast is for you. Gustavo Arellano, along with a diverse set of reporters from the award-winning L.A. Times newsroom, delivers the most interesting stories from the Los Angeles Times every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Listen and subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.

POLITICS AND GOVERNMENT

Conflict brews over governor’s student transfer guarantee plan for ultracompetitive UCLA. The state’s nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office, which provides fiscal and policy advice to legislators, called Gov. Gavin Newsom’s proposal “particularly myopic,” saying it would set a “very poor policy precedence” by linking state funding to narrow outcomes at a single campus. Los Angeles Times

Is California breaking its promise to cut health care costs? Brian Iv works in a factory in Orange County, earning around $26 per hour. He suffers chronic pain from a lifetime of manual labor jobs and previous workplace injuries but often treats the pain with home remedies or traditional Cambodian practices. Going to the doctor is too expensive, he said. CalMatters

California beach city weighs balloon ban to protect coast. Environmental advocates are celebrating in Laguna Beach — but it won’t be with balloons. ABC News

CRIME, COURTS AND POLICING

Alleged gang member pleads not guilty in California killings. A man with alleged ties to a California prison gang pleaded not guilty Tuesday to killing six people, including a teenager and her baby, last month at a central California home connected to a rival gang, prosecutors said. Associated Press

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CALIFORNIA CULTURE

The Allensworth Community Center in the small city of Allensworth, Calif.
(Tomas Ovalle / For The Times)

Allensworth, a onetime Black utopia, could rise again from the Central Valley dust. Tucked away half an hour from Bakersfield, unbeknownst to many, a California Historic Park commemorates life in the community, formed when Lt. Col. Allen Allensworth and a group of enterprising men sought to create a town where Black residents could prosper, free from racist ideologies. Los Angeles Times

She fled the war in Ukraine but failed to find a safe haven in S.F. middle school. Everything that Yana, a 13-year-old Ukrainian refugee, knew about public schools in the United States was what she had seen on television or in the movies — often idyllic settings where teenage conflict and angst ironed itself out by the end. SF Chronicle

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AND FINALLY

Today’s California landmark is Alabama Hills, from Donald Carper.

Alabama Hills in Inyo County.
(Donald Carper)

The rock formations in the Alabama Hills, a small community in Inyo County, contrasted with the Sierra Nevada mountains, are a spectacular sight. The place is where so many western movies were made.

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What are California’s essential landmarks? Fill out this form to send us your photos of a special spot in California — natural or human-made. Tell us why it’s interesting and what makes it a symbol of life in the Golden State. Please be sure to include only photos taken directly by you. Your submission could be featured in a future edition of the newsletter.

Please let us know what we can do to make this newsletter more useful to you. Send comments to essentialcalifornia@latimes.com.

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