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An extraordinary set of circumstances awaits lawmakers as they return to the Capitol.
The California Legislature is set to get back to work on Monday – right as new shutdown orders could be taking effect across California.
The new system announced by Gov. Gavin Newsom on Thursday splits the state into five regions – San Diego is grouped into the massive Southern California region – and uses ICU bed capacity as its measure. If a region dips below 15 percent capacity, new shutdowns of most activities will be triggered for at least three weeks.
“But with so many hospitals in the state experiencing a rapid surge of patients with the disease, the ‘regional stay-at-home’ order described by Newsom is likely to limit activities across California throughout the holiday season and possibly into the new year,” the Los Angeles Times reported.
That makes for an extraordinary set of circumstances for lawmakers to address as they return to the Capitol.
Here’s what I’ll be watching as the new session gets underway.
Bills Making a Comeback
So much got left on the table after the last legislative session, after coronavirus shutdowns forced lawmakers to scale back their plans, and chaos toward the end of session thwarted many of the remaining bills.
Sen. Nancy Skinner announced this week that a bill to expand her previous legislation opening up police records to the public will be back.
Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez has said she’ll bring back legislation to curtail the use of non-lethal police projectiles against protesters and journalists.
Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins said she’ll revive legislation she wrote to address sea-level rise that got cut last session as legislators pared back their bills amid the pandemic shutdowns. She did not specifically say whether her bill to allow fourplexes on single-unit lots will be back in the same form, but said housing production bills will also return.
“Our main focus as a Legislature will be the pandemic, but there are a lot of bills that will return. Police reform will be back,” Atkins wrote in an email statement to VOSD. “Wildfire legislation will be back. Broadband access will be back, and critical climate change legislation, like my bill helping local communities address sea level rise, will be back. And, most assuredly, housing production will be back.”
Republican lawmakers will always be at odds with a Democratic governor, but this year has seen the governor exert power over people’s everyday lives in ways most of us have never experienced.
Naturally, that’s created some tension about the balance of power among elected officials in the state, and who should be making some of these decisions.
“The Governor’s response to the COVID pandemic has been hap-hazard and lacking supportable data. The legislature is cut out of the decision loop and not informed until minutes before implementation. Enough is enough. Our constituents need answers,” Republican Assembly leader Marie Waldron wrote on Twitter Thursday after Newsom announced new shutdown criteria.
Sen. Brian Jones said he wants to see the Legislature play a larger role on some of the biggest issues facing Californians, rather than ceding them to the governor.
“It’s been over 8 months since the Democrat Legislative leaders abdicated their responsibilities and gave Governor Newsom dangerous, dictatorial powers,” Jones wrote in an email statement. “Let’s hope that time back in their districts have forced Democrat legislators to see the effect these lockdowns have had on Californians’ education, mental health, suicide and substance abuse rates, and housing shortages, in addition to the devastation of jobs and businesses. Now is the time, in a bipartisan manner, that the Legislature should begin moving to rescue Californians who are on the brink.”
Coronavirus tensions even strained some relationships among Democratic lawmakers. After the last session ended without major action on police reform or housing, Speaker Anthony Rendon and Atkins traded a series of statements in the media blaming each other for the outcomes.
Whether they’ve picked up and moved on will be an important dynamic to watch.
COVID vs. Everything Else
Though widespread vaccine distribution could be on the horizon in 2021, there’s no doubt the coronavirus will continue to dominate Californians’ lives – and the work of the Legislature.
Gonzalez announced her first new bill of the session this week, a measure to allow unemployment benefits to be distributed via direct deposit. It’s a window into how much the virus itself, and the financial hardships it’s created, will likely dwarf other issues.
Though most people seized on the revelation that Newsom had eaten dinner at the French Laundry with a group of people because they viewed it as hypocritical, many were angered for another reason: The dinner was a celebration for a powerful lobbyist.
It was yet another reminder of how moneyed interest groups shape the agenda in Sacramento.
The failure of police reform legislation last session drove home police unions’ continuing influence – and in case it wasn’t driven home just quite clearly enough, a special committee set up to advance the issue was composed entirely of lawmakers who’ve taken thousands of dollars in contributions from police unions.
While the Legislature has been off, some of those police unions have been busy writing up their preferred versions of police reform.
A former staffer in Sen. Ben Hueso’s Chula Vista office has filed a claim – a precursor to a lawsuit – against the California state Senate, Hueso and members of his staff claiming she was discriminated against and harassed based on her race.
Dawn Herndon was the first Black staffer in Hueso’s office, the claim says. It alleges she was subjected to different standards than other staffers and scrutinized more harshly, and that she was subjected to harassing comments by staffers and Hueso himself.
“While driving south on Interstate 5, Senator Hueso began to discuss UCLA’s library, stating, ‘the library is so big you can rape girls in there. They can scream and no one can hear it,’” the claim says.
Erin Hickey, a spokeswoman for Hueso, said that per Senate policy, she can’t comment on pending litigation.