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California lawmakers chafe at Newsom’s unilateral coronavirus actions

(LAT)

Members of the California Legislature are happy with the job Gov. Gavin Newsom has done in leading California’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, OK? They really, really want to make sure everyone knows that.

And yet.

In a pair of recent legislative hearings — where Newsom administration officials appeared via videoconferencing and answered questions from a handful of mask-wearing lawmakers convened in Sacramento — there was clearly frustration with some of the governor’s recent go-it-alone decisions. Expect those rumbles to grow louder as the Legislature prepares to return to the state Capitol as soon as next week for at least basic preparations to craft a short-term budget before June 15.

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How much is being spent and on what?

Most of the grumbling was heard in last week’s Assembly budget hearing, where a bipartisan chorus insisted there should be more consultation with their coequal branch of government.

“We’re obviously extraordinarily supportive of the governor,” Assemblyman Phil Ting (D-San Francisco), chairman of the budget committee, told Newsom’s advisors. “Having said that, the emergency powers that were granted were, you know, with an understanding that this would be for a certain amount of discrete time — definitely wasn’t the sense that there was a blank check.”

Newsom told lawmakers on April 10 that initial spending on the state’s coronavirus response will be at least $7 billion, though most of that is expected to be reimbursed by the federal government. But the independent Legislative Analyst’s Office has tallied only about $2 billion of identified costs. And that includes the still-secret contract for almost $1 billion in protective masks, being paid to a Chinese electric car company, known well in state government circles after years of help offered to the company’s California subsidiary.

A number of questions revolved around the way Newsom has interpreted Senate Bill 89, the $1 billion of initial emergency spending the Legislature approved before public health concerns last month prompted a temporary recess. The bill says the governor must “work with stakeholders, including members of the Legislature and legislative staff” in deciding the next steps to be taken.

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But that’s not happening, said Assemblyman Jim Wood (D-Healdsburg).

“We often, as legislators, hear maybe five minutes before an executive order comes out,” Wood said. “Or we’re watching live the governor’s daily updates to get information. And that’s a challenge.”

Two friction points with members of the Assembly during last Monday’s hearing were particularly noteworthy. The first was whether Newsom has exceeded the authority in the $1-billion spending plan. The governor’s budget advisors have subsequently sent lawmakers 10 notification letters that funds were being doled out — including boosted spending on some social “safety net” programs.

“That’s not something that I feel was given him the authority to allocate money for under SB 89,” said Assemblyman Jay Oberntole (R-Big Bear Lake).

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One of Newsom’s unilateral spending actions has already drawn a legal challenge on grounds that it exceeds legislative authority. Last week, two GOP candidates for the Assembly asked the California Supreme Court to block the governor’s decision to spend $75 million on coronavirus relief for those state residents who are in the U.S. illegally. Matched with private foundation money, the program aims to offer a total of $125 million.

Some on the budget panel took aim at the governor’s decision to withhold, for now, any allocations to local communities from the $9.5 billion the state received in funding from the $2.2-trillion stimulus package signed by President Trump last month. While the federal effort earmarked $5.8 billion for locals, that money only flows to communities of 500,000 people or more.

A legislative analysis found the $5.8 billion will be divvied up by 16 counties and five cities in California. But many more communities need help, lawmakers said, ones that aren’t large enough for a direct infusion of the federal cash.

“What is the administration’s plan to make whole these local governments that do not meet the 500,000-person metric?” asked Assemblyman Adam Gray (D-Merced).

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The answer from Newsom’s advisors: The governor is deferring all decisions on dipping into the state’s share of that federal cash until he presents a budget proposal next month.

Expect more of these pointed questions in the coming days. For Newsom, who’s largely had the governing work to himself with the Legislature in stay-at-home mode, the job of managing the crisis could become more complicated as lawmakers insist on more collaboration and more transparency.

The reopen dilemma

Newsom spent time during most of his recent weekday COVID-19 briefings acknowledging the obvious: Californians want to know when conditions will merit at least a partial reopening of the state’s economy and community activities. It’s a simple question with a complicated answer, he says.

“There’s a deep desire to know when” things will change, he said on Thursday. “And as I said, it’s not a date. It’s an indicator.”

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The governor made one modification to the stay-at-home guidelines last week, allowing hospitals to again schedule elective surgeries. And he’s promised to offer updates every Wednesday on whether a series of measurements have shown improvement, including access to testing for the virus and key decisions made on how businesses will ensure physical distancing.

Other governors have gone further than Newsom. And the California Democrat knew this past weekend’s warm, sunny weather would prove a test here. He’ll undoubtedly be asked on Monday to share his opinion about the large crowds that flocked to beaches in Orange and Ventura counties, as well as a handful of arrests in San Diego of people protesting his order.

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National lightning round

— Social distancing must continue through the summer, White House coronavirus response coordinator Deborah Birx said Sunday, even as some states began moving to ease shutdown and stay-at-home guidelines.

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— The latest fault line to emerge as the nation struggles with the greatest health and economic crisis it has faced in generations: a growing split between governors and mayors on when to end the country’s self-imposed shutdown.

— Smartphones could discreetly detect those who may have COVID-19 and nudge them to quarantine. But can it work without becoming an invasive surveillance system?

— Without a centralized process by the federal government and skyrocketing prices, some grocery stores have struggled to protect their employees.

— A pastor and protester clashed over coronavirus restrictions. One was arrested.

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Essential California politics

— California’s push for density, supporting policies to encourage using transit and building housing near job centers, has a new enemy: the coronavirus.

— Newsom will soon launch a program to provide three meals a day to California seniors in need during the COVID-19 pandemic, partnering with local officials to employ out-of-work restaurant workers with funding largely provided by the federal government.

— California’s ban on grocery stores providing single-use plastic bags has been suspended, amid concerns that clerks may be at risk for exposure to the coronavirus if shoppers are required to supply their own reusable bags.

— The healthcare industry has been lobbying Newsom to sign a sweeping order it has drafted that would shield nursing homes and senior care facilities, as well as doctors and hospitals, from coronavirus lawsuits and prosecutions.

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— California has been approved to borrow what is expected to be billions of dollars from the federal government to pay unemployment benefits to those left jobless in recent weeks, raising concerns about the cost of repaying the debt.

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