Little Time, Big Agenda When California Lawmakers Return
California lawmakers are returning to work Monday for a furious five-week sprint that will include contentious debates about police brutality, unemployment benefits, hospital mergers and a moratorium on evictions during the coronavirus pandemic.
The state Legislature has shut down twice because of the coronavirus, losing precious time to work through issues and cut deals on key legislation. Now, most of the 55 standing committees will only meet one more time, limiting the number of bills that can pass by the Aug. 31 deadline for the session.
“Some people are just going to run out of time on some of their tougher bills,” said Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, Democratic chair of the Assembly Appropriations Committee that is the gatekeeper for most legislation moving to the Assembly floor.
But some lawmakers are working on another solution: Asking Gov. Gavin Newsom to call them back for a special session to give them more time to pass tough bills, including those aimed at addressing the fallout from the coronavirus. The request will come in the form of a letter from some lawmakers, Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon said.
Coronavirus-related bills include a proposal from state Sen. Jerry Hill that would make COVID-19 infections eligible for worker's compensation benefits and a bill from state Sen. Anthony Portantino that would expand paid sick leave for food-sector workers. The most contentious issue could be a bill by Democratic Assemblyman David Chiu that would prevent landlords from evicting tenants unable to pay their rent during the pandemic.
Rendon said the idea of the Assembly passing such sweeping bills nine months ago would have “probably been science fiction."
Lawmakers are also discussing how they could replace some federal unemployment benefits set to expire Friday. Since mid-March, 8.7 million Californians have filed for unemployment and the state has paid $50 billion in benefits, so much money the state has had to borrow from the federal government to make its payments.
Californians can get up to $450 per week in unemployment benefits, but the federal government has been adding an extra $600 per week to that total, boosting pay for many beyond the hourly wages they earned while working.
Congress is considering extending those benefits but many Republicans oppose the idea, saying it deters people from returning to work.
Discussions in the state Legislature, where Democrats have a super-majority in each chamber that allows them to pass bills without any GOP votes, have focused on replacing part of the $600 should it expire.
Supporters of the move say it's critical for low-income wage earners, especially those who lost their jobs twice — once under Newsom's statewide stay-at-home in March that shuttered most of the economy and again within the last month when the governor reimposed closures for bars, gyms, malls and other indoor businesses, and limited restaurants, hair salons and other business to outdoor service. to curb the resurgent virus.
“It would be nice to get that done. I think there is tremendous need for that, for sure,” Rendon said.
The state has its own money problems, passing a budget in June that included billions of dollars in spending cuts to cover an estimated $54.3 billion, virus-induced deficit. The financial picture has improved slightly, however. Last month, the state collected $1 billion more in taxes than it had anticipated, and the nonpartisan Legislative Analysts Office says tax collections since April 1 are about 12%, or $2.7 billion, ahead of projections.
Public Safety committees in the Assembly and Senate will have the heaviest workload, flooded with bills about policing and racial justice in light of the nationwide protests prompted by the death of George Floyd.
Bills include banning police from using tear gas and neck holds that cut off the flow of blood to the brain, limiting the use of rubber bullets to disperse protests, allowing independent investigations of police use of force and decertifying law enforcement officers who are fired for misconduct to prevent them from getting hired somewhere else.
“We haven't lost any of our energy in and around those issues,” Rendon said.
Health care issues include proposals that would make sure emergency room patients never pay more than their co-pays or deductibles, capping co-pays for insulin medication and letting California manufacture its own generic drugs to bring down prices.
One of the biggest fights will be over a proposal to empower the state attorney general to nix mergers of for-profit hospitals. The bill is aimed at preventing monopolies that drive up health care costs but is strongly opposed by the California Hospital Association, which says it would strain the health care system with “extreme, burdensome” regulations.
As public schools discuss how to safely reopen their campuses, administrators are closely watching a proposal that would shield districts from paying damages, with some exceptions, should students or staff get sick with the coronavirus even after a school follows safety guidelines.
Newsom has ordered school districts in most of the state to begin the year with distance learning, with strict guidelines for when they could reopen. Lawmakers are discussing how to aid districts with their distance learning programs, which could require amending the state budget.
“I'm keenly concerned and interested in how we support children in educational pursuits while they are home,” said state Sen. Holly Mitchell, a Democrat from Los Angeles and chair of the Senate Budget and Fiscal Review Committee.