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Coronavirus means unprecedented rules for reopening California’s Capitol

(LAT)

Seven weeks after hurriedly approving a $1-billion coronavirus response and then suspending work over public health fears, the California Legislature takes its first real steps on Monday to resume activity in Sacramento.

The changes for those who visit the historic state Capitol will be unprecedented. So, too, will the challenges facing legislators who have three big jobs to tackle: offering additional help to Californians in the battle against the coronavirus, expanding their oversight of Gov. Gavin Newsom’s unilateral actions, and crafting a state budget in the face of an ever-deepening downturn.

The Assembly this week, the Senate on May 11

The guidelines issued by Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon (D-Lakewood) last week for legislative business beginning on Monday morning are unlike any found in history books.

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Temperature checks and health screening interviews at public entrances to the state Capitol. One person per elevator ride. Strict limits on in-person public seats inside hearings, with many witnesses who will speak on bills to be diverted to separate rooms for video conferencing. Plexiglass shields in front of those who wish to comment from the public seating areas during hearings.

“The work of the Legislature is essential for democracy, but preserving people’s health as we do that is of the highest importance,” Rendon said in a statement Thursday.

The California Senate is waiting an additional week to resume its work. Neither house appears to be ready to hold floor sessions until June — perhaps because physical distancing, with legislators’ desks side by side, will prove challenging.

Setting aside the logistics issues, the pandemic’s most lasting effects on governing California may be the sheer number of public policy proposals that will fall by the wayside in 2020. Almost all of the Assembly’s policy committees will meet only one more time to consider Assembly bills this year.

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A few — notably those covering public safety, the judiciary and labor issues — are expected to still hear a lot of bills. Others, though, appear to have been dramatically downsized.

Case in point: Eighty-four bills were referred this year to the Assembly Transportation Committee, but only 14 are on Monday’s hearing agenda. Thirty-one bills await action in the Assembly Privacy and Consumer Protection Committee, but only seven will be heard on Tuesday. Again, these committees are not scheduled to meet again to hear new Assembly bills this year. A lot of bills will simply never be vetted.

Those that make it from policy committees to the Assembly Appropriations Committee, now scheduled to act on bills on June 2 and 3, will have to prove they’re worth the cost. On Friday, Newsom said the coronavirus-induced downturn had added “tens of billions of dollars in deficit” projections to the budget he’ll unveil on May 14.

Will voters allow the Legislature to govern remotely?

The coronavirus crisis has laid bare the various ways in which California’s legislative branch of government was unprepared to conduct its business anywhere but in person while inside the state Capitol. Those wishing to comment on bills have rarely had a remote way of participating. And when the Senate’s budget committee held its first hearing since the emergency halt to legislative work, the demand for streaming video was so large that the system crashed for the better part of an hour.

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Exactly why the Legislature can’t remotely vote on bills seemed murky for several weeks, with most of the chatter lamenting the lack of technical equipment. But in recent weeks, legislative attorneys have pointed to something else: provisions in the California Constitution, enacted by voters in 2016, that could nullify statutes not ratified in meetings where the public can attend in person.

Article IV, Section 7 of the state Constitution says that “the proceedings of each house and the committees thereof shall be open and public,” written as part of Proposition 54 in its mandate that bills be available for public review for 72 hours before a final vote. The concern is that lawmakers voting remotely won’t meet the standard for public access to their actions.

Assemblyman Kevin Mullin (D-San Mateo), who serves as speaker pro tem of the house, says he’s working on a constitutional amendment to help clarify the rules in hopes that it provides governing options in times like these and during natural disasters. The change would have to be approved by voters this November.

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National lightning round

President Trump on Sunday sharply revised upward his projected toll of U.S. coronavirus deaths, saying that fatalities could reach 100,000, even as he defied warnings from leading public health experts and renewed his calls for a quick reopening of businesses across the country.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell will bring senators back to Washington this week even as the capital city reports record numbers of new coronavirus cases and the two parties are mired in a stalemate over the next bill to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic.

— A spokesman for a key House panel says the White House has blocked Dr. Anthony Fauci from testifying this week at a hearing on the coronavirus outbreak.

— The Trump administration is refusing to disclose how it is distributing medical supplies for the coronavirus response brought to the U.S. at taxpayer expense.

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— Unless the race for president breaks strongly one way or the other, six states will probably decide who sits in the White House starting Jan. 20, 2021.

Tara Reade, the former Senate staffer who alleges Joe Biden sexually assaulted her 27 years ago, says the report she filed with a congressional personnel office did not explicitly accuse him of sexual assault or harassment.

Dolores Huerta, the labor and civil rights leader who co-founded what eventually became the United Farm Workers union, endorsed Biden for president on Friday.

Essential California politics

— Under mounting pressure to lift the state’s stay-at-home order, Newsom on Friday said that he will make an announcement as early as this week on his plans to begin to ease restrictions on Californians to stem the spread of coronavirus.

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— California’s March 2 primary may not earn a place in the history books for voter enthusiasm, but it might be remembered as the state’s last major civic event of the pre-coronavirus era. In November, voters will be encouraged to show up by staying home.

— Arrested four times in three weeks: L.A. police blame zero bail for the rise in repeat offenders.

— The first shipment of protective masks purchased from a Chinese company by advisors to Newsom has arrived in California, part of a still-confidential agreement costing taxpayers almost $1 billion.

— With California schools closed because of the coronavirus, Newsom said Wednesday that low-income families will receive $365 per child to buy food during the next two months to make up for free and reduced-priced lunches previously provided on campus.

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— But not everything’s rosy for the governor. Some of his recent pandemic promises have yet to pan out, renewing critiques of an impatient, and at times chaotic, governing style that dogged Newsom during his first year in office.

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