In a hearing that stretched more than four hours Monday, California’s Assembly Budget Committee held its first legislative oversight hearing on how Gov. Gavin Newsom plans to lead the state through the coronavirus pandemic — and how an estimated $7 billion in emergency expenses are being spent.
With the deadline to rework the state’s budget just weeks away, the 11 legislators spread across the committee room expressed frustration over how little information they have received so far.
"The emergency powers that were granted were with an understanding that this would be for a certain amount of discreet time,” said Assemblyman Phil Ting, a Democrat from San Francisco who chairs the Budget Committee. “It wasn't the sense that there was a blank check or we would just be notified after expenditures were already committed to.”
Gabriel Petek, an analyst with the State’s independent Legislative Analyst's Office, recommended that the state must soon shift from reactive to proactive in order to address the expected financial consequences from the crisis. Saying that “we have moved on from the initial phase of this episode,” he said the legislature would need more detailed information going forward, specifically on Newsom’s plans for the coming months, the costs of those plans, and how the governor would propose to pay for them. That information, Petek said, has not yet been made available to lawmakers.
While most of the legislators took time to champion the governor’s quick actions to issue statewide social distancing orders and success at "flattening the curve" of California’s confirmed cases of the deadly COVID-19, they said they had largely been left out of key-decisions — and that often, they learned about statewide orders from the media or in real-time during Newsom’s daily updates.
“The need to get accurate information to the constituents about what was happening was tough,” Assemblyman William Brough, Dana Point Republican, said. Assemblyman Jim Wood, a Democrat from Santa Rosa, opened his comments by commending the governor’s work, but insisted it had been hampered by resistance to include lawmakers in key discussions and called it a “missed opportunity.”
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Assemblyman Adam Gray, D-Merced, said he “applauded the administration for the multi-faceted approach to slow the spread,” and added that a lot has been done right. “Having said that,” he added, “it’s time to see what we can do better."
He also expressed concerns about how rural communities might be left out of recovery plans, with much of the focus on urban centers where bigger outbreaks occurred.
“We are often told in rural California that we are going to be taken care of later,” he said, adding, “later never comes.” Others questioned the degree to which Newsom was able to act alone — despite the emergency declaration.
The vice Chair, Assemblyman Jay Obernotle, a Republican who represents the 33rd District in the southeast part of the state, raised concerns about whether Newsom’s actions went beyond the limits of his office.
“My question was not whether this was needed, whether or not this was wise,” Obernotle asked. “My question was whether the governor had the statutory authority to spend on social safety net programs.”
State officials promise details in the coming weeks
Members of Newsom’s administration, including officials from the Departments of Emergency Services, and Health and Human Services, Finance, who attended the hearing via video conferencing, attempted to respond to the committee’s demand for details, and answer the wide range of questions
Among the topics on lawmakers minds were: the financial status of the unemployment insurance fund, the scale of COVID-19 testing needed to transition back toward normalcy, how and when federal funding would be distributed, and other issues they will need to be briefed on before tackling a budget revise due in mid-May.
But there were some questions they couldn’t yet answer.
Vivek Viswanathan, the chief deputy director for Budget at the Department of Finance, said they were working on the May revision, but that “there is considerable uncertainty.” He added that he and his department would have more to say about spending in the weeks and months to come, but that federal support would be key. Already, $15 billion in federal funds is coming to California, split between state and local governments.
“It is not enough,” he added, saying the funding “will not eliminate some of the painful choices California will have to make.”
In one somewhat tense exchange between Ting and Marko Mijic, the acting director at the Office of Statewide Health Planning and Development in the Department of Health and Human Services, Ting repeatedly asked exactly how many tests California would need to conduct before lifting some social distancing orders. Mijic — who responded by emphasizing that there is an issue with the supply chain, and that there aren’t enough swabs to collect specimens — was not able to provide an answer. Promising that the agency would have the information this week, he said that the state is on track to achieve Newsom’s goal of having enough capacity to conduct 25,000 tests per day by May 1. To date, 290,500 tests have been conducted.
Administration officials also declined to address a controversial $1 billion contract the state entered into to get face masks from a Chinese company with a history of selling defective products, saying that revealing details of the deal could negatively impact the supply chain.
At the end of the hearing, Ting concluded that — especially with so many questions remaining — there will need to be more discussions between the legislature and the governor’s administration. Emphasizing that lawmakers worked hard in recent years to shore up state reserves, “we want to have a say in how this reserve money is being spent,” he said.
The committee will meet again next Monday to focus on recovery.
“We have full faith in the governor,” Ting added, “but we feel like we have a very important role to play especially in the appropriation of resources.”
Gabrielle Canon is a California Reporter for the USA Today Network. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @GabrielleCanon.