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Trump tells states to cover jobless subsidy, but California’s cash is spent

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Set aside, just for a moment, the question of whether President Trump’s effort to unilaterally order new coronavirus relief is legal. Yes, there’s plenty to chew on about what he can or can’t do without action by Congress.

But for now, consider whether a key part of his proposal — states using existing pandemic assistance to boost jobless benefits — is even doable.

A pretty good case can be made that in California and elsewhere, that train has already left the station.

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He says ‘the states have the money.’ Do they?

The president’s unilateral action Saturday included a variety of proposals he insisted would help struggling Americans while his administration continues to spar with congressional Democrats over more comprehensive efforts.

Trump insisted that an executive order he signed at his private New Jersey golf club would provide up to $400 a week for those with unemployment claims as of Aug. 1, the date on which the earlier emergency relief program — which provided an additional $600 a week — expired.

One-quarter of the new $400-per-week benefit, his order says, would be paid by the states. And he insisted states should simply dip into Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act (CARES) dollars provided earlier this spring.

“The states have the money,” Trump told reporters Saturday. “It’s sitting there.”

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Before we get to California, where did that assertion come from? Trump’s executive order cites data compiled by the Treasury Department showing that $80 billion of the $150 billion in CARES Act dollars sent to the states remains available for spending. That’s down slightly from a state-by-state tally as of late June.

But here’s the thing. The $150 billion represents what was sent to states and big cities and counties combined, not just to state capitals. And even then, some local and state governments have spent almost all of it — which means there’s no balanced or fair way to repurpose some of it for enhanced unemployment benefits.

California: The cash was handed out weeks ago

Which brings us to the Golden State.

California received a total of $15.3 billion in CARES Act assistance in the spring. Of that amount, $5.8 billion went directly to the state’s most populous counties and cities, while the remaining $9.5 billion was left to Gov. Gavin Newsom and lawmakers to dole as out needed.

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That happened weeks ago, so it’s not as though state officials in Sacramento are sitting on a pile of federal cash. The state budget signed by Newsom in June awards the largest portion of the state’s share to K-12 schools in need of help to offset the costs of distance learning during the COVID-19 crisis. Other slices were allocated to efforts for homeless relief and to smaller California communities.

At best — and it would take some legislative maneuvering — only about $2.6 billion of the state’s CARES Act allotment could be used for some kind of new purpose, even though that would mean some other source of funds would have to exist to help cover coronavirus costs related to helping vulnerable populations and public safety.

Still, the president’s proposal just doesn’t hold water. In California — where this year’s budget may be balanced, but next year’s could be as much as $8.7 billion in the red — there’s no obvious source of funding for the state to pay $100 of Trump’s $400-per-week unemployment benefit.

“This is absurd,” Newsom tweeted Sunday with a link to an Associated Press story about Trump’s effort. “Americans need real help — not false promises.”

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And the cost? By coincidence, the independent Legislative Analyst’s Office ran the numbers in April for what a California unemployment subsidy of $100 per week would cost.

In the analysts’ own words: “We estimate that this option would cost roughly $1 billion per month.”

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It’s worth noting that the president seemed to be relying on a different bucket of already-allocated coronavirus aid for the proposed jobless benefits in his executive order. And regardless, there are already legal questions about his effort — given that the power to collect taxes, spend money and write laws rests with Congress.

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The Trump administration and Democratic leaders took to the airwaves Sunday to blame each other for the impasse on Capitol Hill over a new coronavirus relief package.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) denounced the orders unveiled by Trump on Saturday as “meager, weak and unconstitutional.”

In the meantime, this bleak assessment of where things stand across the nation: Scott Gottlieb, a former Food and Drug Administration commissioner, predicted on CBS that, by the end of the year, U.S. deaths would be somewhere between 200,000 and 300,000.

For Newsom, questions about testing database failure

Seven days ago, news outlets across California reported a cautiously optimistic assessment by Newsom on the spread of the coronavirus.

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But hours after the governor made that announcement, his top advisors apparently realized something that several California counties and even members of his own administration already knew: There was a serious glitch in the state’s online clearinghouse of COVID-19 cases.

Seven days later, the state’s public health officer is no longer on the job.

Dr. Sonia Angell abruptly resigned late Sunday as director of the California Department of Public Health, with no explanation from the Newsom administration for why she was leaving and whether it might be related to the computer problem that resulted in as many as 300,000 health records being left untallied for days.

On July 31 — three days before Newsom’s event — the state Department of Public Health was informing some counties for the second time that technicians knew there was a problem.

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“Earlier this week we notified you of an issue with ELR processing which may result in delays to ELRs appearing in CalREDIE,” said the email reviewed by The Times, referring to an electronic lab reporting (ELR) program that connects with the state disease database.

On Friday, Dr. Mark Ghaly, the state’s secretary of health and human services, said up to 300,000 records — many of which, maybe most, were COVID-19 test results — were backlogged. He also revealed that calculations for spread of the coronavirus in California counties where more businesses must close had been “frozen” until the problem was resolved.

“We apologize. You deserve better,” Ghaly said. “The governor demands better of us, and we are committed to doing better.”

When Newsom next steps to the podium for one of his occasional midday online news conferences, a familiar political query seems to be in order: What did he know, and when did he know it?

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National lightning round

— Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer traveled to Delaware last weekend to meet with Joe Biden. It was the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee’s first known in-person session with a potential running mate.

— Russia has continued its support for Trump by actively trying to undermine Biden’s candidacy, according to a U.S. intelligence assessment released Friday that suggested wide-ranging foreign threats to the November election.

— Trump is losing his grip on congressional Republicans and is facing pushback on his suggestions of delaying the election and false claims about mail-in voting.

— The U.S. Postal Service says it lost $2.2 billion in the three months that ended in June, as its new leader disputed reports that his agency is slowing down election mail.

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Today’s essential California politics

— Newsom’s economic task force has operated almost entirely behind closed doors and produced few notable policies since its inception in the spring. Those appointed were not required to submit state government financial disclosure forms which would show potential conflicts.

— Almost 40 million renters across the country could be at risk of eviction over the next several months. In California, tenants have largely been protected by a combination of federal, state and local eviction moratoriums and financial assistance programs.

— With a deadline approaching at the end of this week, California’s legislative leaders are asking the state’s Judicial Council for more time before renter evictions resume during the COVID-19 pandemic.

— To accommodate the demand for jobless assistance, the state Employment Development Department has been forced to dedicate a large portion of its staff to processing claims, with only 27 sworn officers assigned to investigate fraud allegations.

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— Even as California election officials prepare to mail ballots to all of the state’s 21 million voters this fall, they do so with the expectation that some will still choose to participate in person during the pandemic, requiring a delicate balance between voting rights and public health.

— Los Angeles could revoke city permits and approvals for real estate projects if the City Council finds that developers or their representatives engaged in corruption, under a new ordinance proposed by City Atty. Mike Feuer.

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