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Politics & Government

As The Pandemic Rages On, California Lawmakers Return To The Capitol With Urgent To-Do List

California Capitol andrew nixon.jpg
Andrew Nixon / Capital Public Radio
The California State Capitol on September 12, 2017.

The pressure is on for California lawmakers to stave off a looming eviction crisis and approve immediate cash assistance for schools, low-income Californians and small businesses requested by Gov. Gavin Newsom.

California state lawmakers in both chambers reconvened at the state Capitol this week for the first time since August to debate and pass laws.

Lawmakers took at-home coronavirus tests before returning to the Capitol Monday.

Normally, January and February “tend to be slow” for lawmakers, says Assemblyman Phil Ting (D-San Francisco). But with a looming wave of evictions, a raging pandemic and millions of Californians still out of work, “we don’t have the luxury of waiting” to begin committee hearings, Ting said.

But the first vote of the new year wasn’t pandemic-related. Instead, the Assembly approved a resolution calling for President Donald Trump to resign or be removed from office. The measure was introduced by Chad Mayes, a former leader of the Assembly’s Republican caucus who left the party in late 2019. Six Republicans voted against the resolution.

As lawmakers rush to address the pandemic, an expiring ban on evictions and other crises, Sen. Richard Pan (D-Sacramento) urged his colleagues to remember the root of most of the issues.

“The more we can do to stop the virus and to help the people do what they need to do to stop the virus, the earlier we’re going to be able to get our economy going and our schools open,” he said. “That’s not going to be done by the governor and the legislature alone. This is an all-out effort by every Californian.”

Evictions Moratorium

As long as they have continued to pay a portion of their rent, Californians who have fallen behind are protected from eviction through Jan. 31. But that deadline is looming and Assemblyman David Chiu (D-San Francisco) warns there could be “catastrophic” consequences if the state’s evictions moratorium isn’t extended.

A U.C. Berkeley researcher estimates roughly 2 million Californians, including children, belong to households that have fallen behind on rent and are at risk of losing their homes.

A wave of mass evictions would “not only increase our homelessness, but make COVID more likely to spread, with devastating health consequences,” said Chiu, who authored the original bill to halt evictions due to nonpayment of rent.

Chiu cited a UCLA study linking increased coronavirus cases and deaths in certain states to lapsed bans on evictions.

He says he is negotiating “around the clock” on an updated version. He believes the “core” of the current moratorium “has worked by and large at stabilizing millions of Californians in their homes” and says he is working on “tweaks and refinements” to the next version to address confusion around late fees.

The question is how long an extended eviction ban would remain in place. Landlords call the current situation unsustainable, and the California Rental Housing Association has said extending an eviction moratorium through the year would be too costly to landlords only receiving a fraction of their regular rent payments.

California renters and landlords are expected to receive $2.6 billion in rental assistance from a federal coronavirus relief bill. Some Democratic lawmakers have called for more aid. But Chiu worries the federal money won’t be enough and says he supports “as large a number as we need to address this situation.”

Urgent Spending On Schools And Pandemic Aid

Gov. Gavin Newsom’s budget proposal requested billions of dollars in immediate funding for schools and pandemic relief, which would require legislative approval.

Newsom’s funding requests — $2 billion for schools to reopen by mid-February and an additional $3 billion in economic relief to low-wage workers and small businesses — will be heard and debated in legislative budget committees.

But Ting, the San Francisco Democrat who chairs the Assembly Budget Committee and is also pushing to reopen schools, said he was skeptical of Newsom’s timeline.

“We would like schools to be open as soon as possible, but we also want to do it as safely as possible,” he said. “That's going to take a little bit of time.”

Ting is running a bill that would require schools to reopen in counties that are in the state’s less-restrictive red, orange or yellow tiers measuring coronavirus infection rates beginning in March, which he called a “more prescriptive approach” than the governor’s proposal of dangling $450 per student over districts to reopen.

The Legislative Analyst’s Office called the governor’s school timeline “unfeasible” in a report released following his January budget proposal.

“To be open by February 16, schools would only have a few weeks to complete their reopening plans, arrange routine testing, and develop collective bargaining agreements with their labor unions,” the report reads.

Meanwhile, the California Federation of Teachers is calling for a four-week pause on all in-person learning in the state, a sign educators will continue to resist returning to classrooms as the pandemic rages.

There’s also a small fight brewing over how much support to send small businesses struggling under the weight of the pandemic. Newsom’s relief proposal includes $575 million in grants to small businesses, while dozens of lawmakers from both parties have signed onto a package that would make $2.6 billion available for small business relief.

“California’s small businesses have sustained heavy losses during the COVID-19 pandemic, and a more robust capital investment is needed in the Governor’s budget to keep our economy going,” said Sen. Andreas Borgeas (R-Fresno), who authored the bipartisan relief bill.

Copyright 2021 CapRadio