State Lawmakers Want More Say in California's COVID-19 Response

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California Assembly Budget Chair Phil Ting says it’s time for lawmakers to get more involved in COVID-19-related spending decisions. (Deborah Svoboda/KQED)

California Assembly members on both sides of the aisle say they want to be more involved in helping the state through the COVID-19 pandemic.

At a budget oversight subcommittee hearing at the state Capitol on Monday, lawmakers applauded the job Gov. Gavin Newsom is doing responding to the coronavirus outbreak in California. But Republicans and Democrats both questioned how Newsom is spending some of the money they authorized for the COVID-19 crisis.

Assembly Budget Committee Chair Phil Ting, D-San Francisco, said when the Legislature initially gave Newsom broad authority to spend $1 billion to respond to the virus, it was with the assumption that the situation would be short-lived. Now that it's clear the effects of COVID-19 will be long-lasting, Ting said it’s time for lawmakers to get more involved.

“We also feel like we have a very important role to play," Ting said. "Especially as it comes to the appropriation and the expenditure of these resources.”

Assemblyman Jay Obernolte, R-Big Bear Lake, expressed concerns over Newsom using the emergency fund to shore up the state's social safety net, such as spending on food banks.

"Though that may be desirable, though that might even be wise, though that might be something we agree with ... that's not something that I feel [Newsom] was given the authority to allocate money for," Obernolte said.


Earlier this month, the Department of Finance sent lawmakers a letter estimating that California could spend $7 billion on the COVID-19 response in 2020, although the department believes the majority of that money will be reimbursed by the federal government.

The Legislature went into recess in March as the outbreak began. While lawmakers insist they were working from home, their physical distance from Sacramento appears to have hampered their communication with the administration.

Assemblyman Jim Wood, D-Santa Rosa, who chairs the Assembly Health Committee, said the administration has resisted his attempts to connect lawmakers with experts in the Legislature who might be able to help in the response.

"Getting information that my constituents need has been difficult," Wood said. "We often, as legislators, hear maybe five minutes before an executive order comes out. Or watch live the governor's daily updates."

Other Assembly members agreed, citing a lack of communication between the administration and local jurisdictions over issues like when or whether the state will send them the protective equipment they requested.

Mark Ghilarducci, director of the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services, said all counties have received at least some gear, including protective N-95 masks. But he said the situation is constantly evolving and supplies are shifted around as circumstances change.

As Monday's hearing took place, hundreds of people demonstrated outside the Capitol calling for an end to Gov. Newsom’s stay-at-home order.

Some of the protesters, in cars and on foot, carried signs such as “The Media is the Real Virus,” “Make Cali Free Again” and “Liberty is given from God. It’s not man made.”

CapRadio in Sacramento reported that the rally was organized by the Freedom Angels, which also participated in protests against California’s legislation to tighten exemptions for student vaccines.

Many carried U.S. flags, and at least one held a sign reading “Trump 2020.”

Asked by a reporter at his daily briefing why the California Highway Patrol granted a permit for 500 people given his social distancing orders, Gov. Newsom punted, saying, “We’ll leave that to the CHP to answer, and we’ll get back to you.”

The CHP did not return a call from KQED to answer that question.

Newsom said, “My understanding is that the protest ... has social distancing that was allowable on the basis of people being in their vehicles and not congregating as a group.”

However, CapRadio reported that in fact few protesters practiced social distancing outside their vehicles and many did not have face coverings, which are recommended to slow spread of the coronavirus.

The governor also said, “I deeply understand people’s anxieties,” adding that it would “be a mistake to make decisions based on politics and frustration.”

Update: At 7:30 pm Monday the CHP finally returned KQED's call. Officer Rick Turner said the protesters' violation of social distancing rules at today's rally "will be taken into account" for future permits. Asked how it would be taken into account he said only "on a case by case basis" and could not be more specific.