Newsletter: Coronavirus crisis upends Sacramento’s policy plans


In an alternate universe, this would be an incredibly busy week under the state Capitol dome in Sacramento. Dozens of committees in the state Senate and Assembly would be considering hundreds of proposed laws on topics of vital importance across California. It’s like that every spring in Sacramento.

Every other spring, that is, until this one. The statehouse has been closed to the public, legislators are back in their districts, and many are conducting business by phone. On Sunday, state Senate staffers were told one of their own had tested positive for the coronavirus. The staff member was only identified by Senate Secretary Erika Contreras as “a constituent caseworker” who works in the district of a Southern California senator.

“The Senate has confirmed that the Senator has not had contact with the employee for at least thirty days,” Contreras wrote.

Across state government, there is now no job more important than slowing the growth rate of new coronavirus cases. In other words, it’s shaping up to be a lost year for other public policy efforts in California’s capital city.


‘This changes everything’

Before legislators abruptly adjourned for an early spring recess — now scheduled through April 13 and it probably will last even longer — the chairwoman of the Assembly Appropriations Committee had a message for her colleagues: You need to kill many, if not most, of your bills for 2020.

“I think any legislator who’s not rethinking what will be reconsidered important this year just isn’t doing their job,” Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez (D-San Diego) told me. “This changes everything.”

The impact is likely to be immense. By the bill introduction deadline in late February, there had been more than 2,200 proposed laws put forward for consideration — a tally that included far-reaching environmental, criminal justice and regulatory changes. Now, there simply won’t be time to fully vet many of those bills.

Gonzalez’s committee is the portal through which any legislation must pass that’s projected to cost the state money. Standing legislative rules say that the appropriations panels in both houses must send all bills with a fiscal impact to their respective floors by May 15. Even a return of the Legislature in mid-April would mean most bills couldn’t be fully considered in time; a later return only diminishes the chances.

Gonzalez said there’s another change the coronavirus crisis has brought: a need to funnel large amounts of government cash into virus-related programs. “Our focus with the budget is that other spending is going to have to be really limited,” she said.

Other legislators and staffers have said they believe only three kinds of legislation will be left standing when the books are closed on 2020: coronavirus response plans, efforts to address homelessness and wildfire prevention proposals.

Gonzalez said she’s already scuttled some of the bills she introduced in the weeks before the appearance of the virus that has now been found in at least 1,802 Californians and killed 35 more. Among those are her effort to improve civics education and her pitch to extend a temporary sales tax break on diapers enshrined in last summer’s state budget agreement.

“We’re not going to have time or the ability to concentrate on all of that,” she said.


Newsom’s never-ending challenge

Eight executive orders in 12 days, including an unprecedented directive for most Californians to stay hunkered down in their homes; a request (granted) for a federal disaster declaration; and a personal moment from his wife on March 18 in telling the world via Twitter that the state’s first family was on the verge of running out “of toilet paper, paper towels, and Kleenex.”

The challenge for Gov. Gavin Newsom is as complex as they get: Secure medical necessities to combat a deadly virus and persuade Californians to essentially close down the state’s commerce and cultural pastimes to keep the disease from spreading further. Even if the Golden State were an island unto itself, the dangers of community transmissions would persist.

No order changed the course in California more than Thursday’s statewide stay-at-home directive. While the details have remained complicated — Newsom’s administration continues to grapple with what jobs and services are considered “essential” and therefore still able to function — the message was clear: Earlier mitigation efforts, confined mostly to the state’s urban areas, weren’t enough.

“A state as large as ours, a nation-state, is many parts, but at the end of the day, we’re one body,” Newsom said in announcing the statewide order during an event streamed online and carried live on television and radio stations across California.

While he has insisted he can, if needed, strengthen enforcement, Newsom has mostly insisted it’s a matter of common sense and common purpose.

“Be a good neighbor,” Newsom said on Saturday. “Be a good citizen.”

Those pleas have paid off when it comes to California’s vaunted technology sector. On Saturday, Newsom praised the CEOs of Apple and Tesla for stepping up to help and recounted the story of an energy company executive who had met the challenge of modernizing older-model ventilators.

One curious side effect of the pandemic in California is that it has, in many cases, turned down the heat of partisan politics in a state whose abundance of Democratic officeholders have prided themselves on proving to be a national counterpoint to President Trump. Newsom, one of the president’s most vocal critics over the past few years, has consistently praised the working relationship with Trump, Vice President Mike Pence and federal health officials.

“We need more support from the federal government and I’m very, very encouraged by the conversations we’re having,” Newsom said on Saturday.

Before its fast exit from Sacramento, the Legislature approved up to $1 billion in emergency spending on coronavirus efforts — a plan that was written and enacted in a matter of hours with broad bipartisan support.

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Politics lightning round

— As negotiations stalled on a $1.8-trillion economic rescue package, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi says her chamber will draft its own bill.

— Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul says he has tested positive for the coronavirus.

— Officials long warned federal funding cuts would leave California vulnerable to a pandemic. No one listened.

— Coronavirus will make California’s affordable housing problems worse, experts say.

— California’s final presidential primary results may be delayed due to coronavirus-related work slowdowns in some counties.

— Facing calls for his resignation over the selling of hundreds of thousands of dollars in stocks weeks before the market crashed, North Carolina Sen. Richard Burr has asked congressional investigators to probe whether his actions amounted to insider trading.

— Do you wonder what Joe Biden is doing all day? Now that the former vice president’s campaign for the Democratic nomination is all but over, he’s been nearly totally eclipsed by news of the coronavirus outbreak.

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