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Published: November 20, 2020

“Under the Dome” – COVID-19 Quarantined Capitol … “We’re all mad here.”

By CAFP Lobbyist Bryce Docherty

In the iconic story Alice in Wonderland, the Cheshire Cat says, “We’re all mad here,” to Alice in one of the most concise descriptions of the strange world down the rabbit hole. Unlike the world Alice left behind, "mad" is not necessarily a bad thing. It suggests embracing a side of you that is quirky and unpredictable, and maybe when we get back to reality, you will want to take a little of that with you.

Amidst all the “madness” in and around the State Capitol this past year, Governor Newsom had until September 30, 2020, to either sign or veto all 430 pieces of legislation sent to his desk by the Legislature. Due to the COVID-19 crisis and the truncated legislative session, the Legislature had to significantly pare down the number of bills they considered this year.

Mid-March, amid the COVID crisis, the Legislature abruptly adjourned under duress for the first time in over 150 years. The last time was during the “Great Flood” of 1861-62 when Sacramento was completely under water. In fact, then Governor-Elect Leland Stanford had to rowboat his way to the Capitol for his inauguration in January 1862.

The Legislature returned in May donning masks, trying to adhere to social distancing requirements and a strict order that only one essential staffer may be allowed in a legislative office at a time. Virtual Zoom meetings with legislators and watching committee hearings and floor sessions via livestream has become commonplace as has phone-in testimony as lobbyists have been barred from the Capitol and it remains closed to the public.

The only way the Legislature was able to get through all the legislative business was by diminishing their workload. Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins (D-San Diego) in a letter on April 10, 2020 to her members, instructed them to limit their authored bill packages to only a handful by stating,

“I have asked Senators to reconsider their priorities and reduce the number of bills they carry accordingly. For example, I am scaling back my legislative portfolio and plan to pursue only two pieces of legislation this year.”

Members of the Legislature, their staff, and even personnel with the Governor’s Office continue to test positive for COVID. It appears the Legislature will continue with virtual and remote session and governance protocols well into 2021.

Prior to gaveling down again for a brief legislative summer recess at the end of June, beginning of July, the Legislature met their constitutional deadline of passing a state budget by June 15, 2020. This “shelter-in-place” or commonly referred to as a baseline budget, simply continued the 2019-2020 budget structure but borrowed heavily form the $20 billion “Rainy Day Fund” to maintain current funding levels for health and human services.

Good news is tax revenue continues to outpace current budget projections. However, Assembly Budget Chair Phil Ting (D-San Francisco) has already warned of potential budget cuts and had to unilaterally rescind almost all legislative budget requests for the creation of new programs and additional revenue for existing programs. In a letter to his colleagues on March 30, 2020, Assembly Member Ting stated,

“We must lower expectations about our budget outlook to reflect our new reality. With state revenues likely being dramatically reduced in the coming year, I do not believe we will have resources to fund many Member priorities this year, beyond a small few that deal with the response and recovery to COVID 19.”

The Senate has also created a dedicated Special Committee on Pandemic Emergency Response, chaired by Senator Lena Gonzalez (D-Long Beach) and vice-chaired by Senator Pat Bates (R-Laguna Niguel). According the April 15, 2020 announcement from the Office of Senate President Pro Tem Toni Akins:

“The Special Committee on Pandemic Emergency Response, a bipartisan committee of eleven senators, is tasked with reviewing the state’s response to the COVID-19 health crisis – what has gone right and what could be improved. The committee also will make findings and recommendations for future preparedness if the coronavirus returns later in the year, or if the state faces a subsequent pandemic.”

U.S. Congress failed to reach an agreement and act on a multi-billion-dollar COVID relief package for California by October 15, 2020, resulting in $11 billion dollars of state “trigger” cuts for this current budget year. Although California tax receipts are ahead of projections, state budget insiders are predicting at least $9 billion in necessary cuts heading into the 2021-2022 budget cycle. CAFP will be closely monitoring the budget actions and many others as they begin to unfold into 2021.

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