Democratic lawmakers block GOP effort to end California COVID-19 state of emergency
An effort by Republican state lawmakers to end Gov. Gavin Newsom’s COVID-19 state of emergency was blocked in the Democratic-controlled California Legislature on Tuesday.
For more than a year, GOP lawmakers have accused the governor of abusing his executive powers to respond to the crisis and asked legislators to vote to end the emergency in a state Senate committee hearing Tuesday, arguing the declaration was no longer necessary and constituted government overreach.
The Newsom administration has said that the more than 2-year-old state of emergency must stay in place to continue the state’s pandemic response. The Democratic governor has used that broad authority to waive statutes and laws to facilitate testing and vaccination programs, and to ensure that California had enough capacity in hospitals to handle caseload surges.
State Sen. Melissa Melendez (R-Lake Elsinore) said that it’s the Legislature’s responsibility as a co-equal branch of government to change the laws and statutes necessary to address the pandemic and that lawmakers have had more than two years to do so. She urged her colleagues not to abdicate that responsibility and noted that more than half the states in the country have ended their states of emergency and are still able to respond to the pandemic.
“We ended school years and we shuttered businesses and we implemented lockdowns and we enforced remote work and we implemented all sorts of policies and testing,” Melendez said when arguing in favor of her resolution. “We have grown over the last few years. We are equipped to deal with this and this constant state of emergency is no longer necessary.”
Melendez’s resolution failed in the Senate’s governmental operations committee by a 4-8 vote, split along party lines with a number of Democrats not voting. The measure is eligible to come up for reconsideration at a later date.
During the debate, state Sen. Ben Allen (D-Santa Monica) said that “it’s important that [the declaration] be ended at some point,” but that he was concerned that doing so now would hinder the state’s aggressive efforts to provide free COVID-19 testing and therapeutics.
Senate Governmental Organization Committee Chairman Bill Dodd (D-Napa) praised Newsom’s response to the pandemic, saying the executive actions he’s taken have allowed California to fare better than many other states to combat the spread of the virus and reduce hospitalizations.
“Nobody had a playbook on this thing. I think the governor got it right. I think he continues to get it right,” Dodd said before the vote. “The existing state of emergency proclaimed by the governor is absolutely important to ensure that the state can quickly and efficiently continue to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic and be prepared for possible future variants and surges.”
Since he declared a state of emergency on March 4, 2020, Newsom has issued 70 executive orders involving the COVID-19 pandemic that addressed a range of issues, including price gouging, allowing mobile vaccination clinics, halting evictions and postponing the deadline for filing tax returns in 2020. Most of those have either been rescinded or have expired.
In February, the governor terminated 19 provisions in executive orders, which included requirements that all state-owned properties be made available for emergency. Another 18 provisions will expire at the end of March, including those that protect COVID-19 relief funds from garnishment and allow for virtual corporate and public meetings, according to Newsom’s office. Additional executive orders that limit liability for data breaches on telemedicine platforms and allow video assessments for those with COVID-19 symptoms who receive in-home supportive care are set to be rescinded on June 30.
Under the 1970 California Emergency Services Act, the governor has broad authority to respond during a state of emergency such as a pandemic. The governor can make, amend and rescind state regulations and suspend state statutes, and has the power to redirect state funds to help in an emergency — even funds appropriated by the Legislature for an entirely different purpose. The governor also has the authority to commandeer private property, including hospitals, medical labs, hotels and motels.
Under the act, a state of emergency can only be rescinded by the governor or by a vote of the Legislature.
Last year, the California Supreme Court upheld an appeals court ruling that affirmed Newsom’s emergency powers. Two state Republican lawmakers had challenged Newsom’s power, arguing he had no right to issue an executive order requiring ballots to be mailed to the state’s 22 million registered voters before the Nov. 3, 2020 election.
Ann Patterson, the governor’s legal affairs secretary, said in February that rescinding the state of emergency would “cripple” California’s response to the pandemic.
Under Newsom’s executive powers that will remain in place, the state will continue to largely waive licensing requirements for healthcare facilities, workers and testing labs — actions designed to boost the state’s vaccination and testing capacity and expand the scope of practice for pharmacists, technicians and EMS workers.
Kathryn Austin Scott of the California Hospital Assn. told lawmakers that, if the state of emergency ended, medical facilities would lose thousands of healthcare workers who were allowed to come in from outside California due to a licensing waiver issue by the governor.
Patterson also said that all state mask and vaccine mandates, including those for schoolchildren and healthcare workers, were enacted under the state health and safety code. Even if the state of emergency ends, those mandates would remain in place until rescinded by the state’s top public health officer.
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