George Skelton: In the coronavirus crisis, California isn’t under one-party rule, it’s under one-man rule

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California no longer has one-party rule in Sacramento. It now has one-man rule.

Gov. Gavin Newsom has told everyone who doesn’t have an “essential” job to stay home and protect themselves and others from the coronavirus. If they must venture out, he lectured, stay 6 feet from anyone.

Legislating officially is an essential job, but it’s hard to perform without cozying up to colleagues. And when meeting in their majestic chambers, lawmakers must sit close to seatmates.

So the Legislature did the healthy thing. It submitted to Newsom’s decree and is essentially staying home for seven weeks. Legislators are mostly staying out of the state Capitol anyway.

“It’s been kind of an eerie ghost town in there,” says Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon (D-Lakewood).

But power abhors a vacuum. With the legislative and judicial branches basically shut down because of the virus, the executive has seized almost complete control over state government. And many legislators are smarting.

They’re antsy to reenter the political arena and resume exerting influence over decision-making, particularly regarding the state’s approach to taming the virus, returning to normal life, restoring the economy and managing a bleeding state budget.

The Legislature is scheduled to reconvene May 4.

“We’re not in Sacramento, and that makes it hard for us to be the influence we’d like,” state Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins (D-San Diego) says. “It’s hard for us to sit back and not be in the works.

“My colleagues want to get back. There’s frustration not being there and doing what they can.”

Rendon says Newsom’s constant issuing of executive orders “makes it a different way of governing. That’s part of why we want to come back. We want to have an influence. That’s our job.”

The legislators’ pique was evident at an Assembly budget hearing last week when lawmakers heard distressing news about the gloomy prospects for state tax revenues.

“We have not been engaged and we have been trying to engage,” complained Assemblyman Jim Wood (D-Santa Rosa). “We often hear maybe five minutes before an executive order comes out or by watching live the governor’s daily updates…. And that’s a challenge.”

Newsom has issued reams of executive orders — around 30 so far. They include shutting down businesses, altering court operations, increasing spending on homeless shelters, providing worker benefits and allowing grocers to issue free single-use plastic bags to customers — which voters had previously outlawed.

It’s all apparently legal. At least, no judge has said any of it is illegal, although some small businesses have filed a lawsuit in federal court challenging the constitutionality of the governor’s shelter-in-place order.

A governor has awesome power once he proclaims a state of emergency. He can temporarily suspend laws and impose rules without legislative permission. And Newsom has made full use of his police power.

One action that got heads shaking was Newsom’s unilateral decision to approve a $1 billion contract with a Chinese company to provide 200 million masks a month. The governor gave the company half the money up front. But so far the state hasn’t received any masks.

Despite requests from legislators and the news media to review the contract, Newsom has kept it secret.

A $1 billion expenditure is hefty even in good times, but it’s especially weighty when we’re heading into a bad recession. It’s the kind of spending that should require legislative input.

When the Legislature returns, the two houses may operate differently.

All Assembly members will be present and attend committee hearings, as usual. There won’t be floor sessions until June, when lawmakers scramble to pass a budget.

But the Senate is considering giving lawmakers an option to legislate remotely if they fear contracting the virus. There would be lots of videoconferencing.

Assembly attorneys say remote legislating may be illegal. Senate attorneys say it’s OK.

Do whatever works, I say. These are desperate times. Forget purity.

Don’t expect an economic stimulus package using state tax money. States can’t print dollars like the feds can. President Donald Trump and Congress will do all the stimulating.

But Atkins and Rendon want to tap into infrastructure bonds that have already been authorized by voters and quickly push the borrowed money out into job-creating projects. There’s $42 billion in unsold bond authorization.

Rendon is also contemplating a November bond issue to finance retraining of unemployed workers for environmentally clean “green jobs.”

Don’t even think about paying for such new programs out of the General Fund budget. The state has a “rainy day” reserve of slightly more than $17 billion. But that will dissipate fast as tax revenues wither.

It’s looking like the Great Recession all over again.

“Without question, we got hit hard,” says H.D. Palmer, a spokesman for the California Department of Finance.

Legislators have been told to plan for a $35 billion budget deficit in the next fiscal year — with deeper holes in the future.

“We’re going to have to rein in our expectations,” Atkins says. “A lot of my colleagues have never been through this.”

By May 14, Newsom will pare down the $222 billion budget he proposed in January. The Legislature must pass a budget by June 15 for the fiscal year starting July 1.

But Rendon says that this time the June budget will only be an interim spending plan. It will be updated in August after taxpayers file their returns and mail in their checks by July 15. Then the revenue picture will be clearer — and probably darker.

By then, some lawmakers may be fondly recalling one-man rule.



Political columnist George Skelton has covered government and politics for nearly 60 years and for The Los Angeles Times since 1974.


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