Pandemic Pushes California Lawmakers Into Fast Action on State Budget

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A view of the California state Capitol in Sacramento. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

California lawmakers are wasting little time debating the $227 billion budget proposal Gov. Gavin Newsom announced last week.

In a break with the normally slow-moving process that drags out for months, budget committees in both the Assembly and state Senate convened this week to review the governor's spending plan, which includes immediate financial relief to families and businesses hard hit by the pandemic.

Newsom and lawmakers are aiming to send out immediate relief funding by the end of January, ahead of when the majority of the budget will be implemented in July.

During a meeting of the Assembly Budget Committee on Monday, Chair Phil Ting, D-San Francisco, said much of what Newsom proposed matches up with the Assembly's budget priorities.

"We also wanted to have an adequate response to COVID-19 to ensure that there were investments in public health infrastructure, vaccine distribution, as well as safe reopening of schools," Ting said.

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Despite the economic downturn, the state finds itself with a one-time budget surplus of about $15 billion. That money primarily comes from California's wealthiest taxpayers, whose jobs and investments have been largely shielded from pandemic-related losses. Newsom's proposal calls for using $5 billion of that surplus to take immediate action on several COVID-19 relief items, including a $600 one-time payment to the state’s lowest-income earners.

State Sen. Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, chair of her house's Budget and Fiscal Review Committee, which met Thursday, said the state must keep its most vulnerable residents in mind when making spending decisions. That means looking at the numbers, she said, "with the latest data strongly pointing to women, and women of color especially, being the most hard hit economically."    

But even though state bank accounts are relatively flush, there are still many competing priorities in this year's budget, with limited funding available.

Several lawmakers, for instance, have questioned whether Newsom’s proposal includes enough spending on wildfire prevention. His plan allocates about $1 billion for prevention and protection, in addition to money for new firefighting crews and equipment.

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Some legislators also challenged Newsom's proposal to direct a sizable amount of funding toward state environmental initiatives.

Assemblyman Jim Wood, D-Santa Rosa, asked if the governor's proposal to build new electrical vehicle charging stations throughout the state should be a top priority right now.

“We have $1.5 billion in the budget for electric car infrastructure and incentives," he said. "We have $575 million going to small businesses. I wonder, is that the right number?"

Lawmakers also discussed the right approach to reopening schools, weighing Newsom's plan, which calls for increased testing and safety measures.

Assemblyman James Gallagher, R-Yuba City, said the state's focus should be on vaccinating teachers.

"We all say we want to get our schools open," he said. "Well, the biggest thing we can do to get our schools open is to get our teachers and support staff vaccinated."