California lawmakers demanded details Thursday about Gov. Gavin Newsom’s agreement to spend almost $1 billion on protective masks needed to combat the state’s coronavirus outbreak, saying there has been too little transparency in spending those taxpayer dollars.
“We’re getting very little information,” said Assemblyman Phil Ting (D-San Francisco), chairman of the Assembly’s budget committee. “We have great trust and faith in the governor, but we also have a job to do to ensure that every dollar he’s spending can stand up to scrutiny.”
Newsom announced the agreement to purchase 200 million masks during an interview with MSNBC host Rachel Maddow on Tuesday. Some 150 million of the masks, he said, would be N95-type masks that are seen as critical to protecting healthcare workers and emergency responders. He said that the state would also purchase 50 million traditional surgical masks, and that shipments of both types of masks would begin soon.
“We’re not waiting around any longer,” he said during the interview.
But there’s been little clarity so far about the details of the agreements made by the governor’s administration, either on the terms or the total amount that will be spent.
“Do I think it’s the right move? Yes,” Sen. Holly Mitchell (D-Los Angeles), chairwoman of the Senate’s budget committee, said of the purchase. “But I still have the responsibility to double-check.”
Mitchell and her colleagues on the Joint Legislative Budget Committee sent a strongly worded letter to Newsom’s budget director on Wednesday asking for the “full details” of what the governor had agreed to with private vendors.
Lawmakers received a written request for swift approval of the spending — approximately $990 million on the masks, with $495 million to be spent this week — shortly before Newsom made his announcement on MSNBC on Tuesday night. Under emergency legislation approved last month, the governor’s staff already had the approval to spend money with no more than 72 hours’ notice. This purchase, they said, needed to be made even faster.
The Newsom administration’s request also left some confusion about the total amount being spent, citing “approximately $1.4 billion” for personal protective equipment for those treating confirmed or suspected COVID-19 cases. On Wednesday, Newsom seemed to say during an online briefing that the purchase was part of the $1.4 billion in spending. But by late Thursday, his advisors said the $1.4 billion represents other spending to combat the virus.
That first payment for masks, some $495 million, will be made Friday and the initial agreement is for two months of supplies, a spokesman for the California Department of Finance said. At least some of the masks promised by Newsom — how many is unclear — will come from existing supplies that will go through a new sterilization process. Mark Ghilarducci, director of the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services, said Wednesday that the state would be using technology developed by the Battelle Memorial Institute, an Ohio-based private nonprofit company. No cost figures have been provided for that process.
“We’ll be able to repurpose them, again, back in the field,” Ghilarducci said.
But legislative leaders have not seen any of the details of the contracts signed by the administration. The Times asked Wednesday for copies of the agreements, the same request lawmakers made in their letter on Thursday. In particular, lawmakers asked for information related to the “efficacy” of the cleaning technology. They also asked for information on the quality of the new masks being purchased and the price per mask the state will pay.
While legislative budget writers approved the quick purchase of the supplies, the experience marked a rare moment of discord between Democratic legislative leaders and the Democratic governor.
“There’s a whole process” for these requests, Mitchell said. “To now do this, an ask of this magnitude in 48 hours, was a bit much.”
Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins (D-San Diego) and Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon (D-Lakewood) announced Thursday that both houses will soon hold public hearings to examine the state’s response to the novel coronavirus.
“We strongly believe the Governor and his team are working diligently on the behalf of Californians, but we promised the people of California we would provide this oversight when we passed emergency COVID-19 funding in March,” Atkins and Rendon said in a written statement.
Newsom has issued almost two dozen executive orders related to the state’s pandemic response since early March, taking swift unilateral action to require most Californians to stay home, cancel student testing after schools closed and push additional dollars into healthcare programs. As of last week, he had allocated some $362 million of the $1.1 billion in spending authorized by the Legislature last month.
Ting, who serves as vice chair of the Joint Legislative Budget Committee, said the concerns raised should not signal a lack of support for the governor’s efforts to slow the rate of growth in COVID-19 infections. He said the message instead is that individual spending decisions need to be examined in the broader context of the state’s finances.
“If they want to keep asking us for requests for money, they’re going to have step up on their transparency,” he said.