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Published: April 20, 2020

“Under the Dome” – COVID-19 Quarantined Capitol

By CAFP Lobbyist Bryce Docherty

Mid-March amid the COVID-19 scare, the Legislature abruptly adjourned under duress for the first time in over 150 years. Prior to heading back to their districts to shelter-in-place, the Legislature swiftly passed an appropriation giving Governor Gavin Newsom a $1.1 billion blank check for myriad COVID-19 crisis relief efforts. Subsequently the governor also utilized an emergency response fund totaling $1.3 billion. However, thanks to former Governor Jerry Brown and his fiscal steadfastness, California still enjoys an approximate total “rainy day” fund of $17.5 billion.

Originally scheduled to return to Sacramento after their Spring Recess on April 13, the new return date is now May 4. That new start date may also be overly optimistic. Even if the Legislature reconvenes on that date, most staff will still be working remotely. Older legislators (i.e., 65 years of age and older) may be excused. While the State Senate has committed to establishing remote voting, the Assembly has encountered constitutional challenges with that concept and is devising various alternatives. The only two constitutional deadlines the Legislature must meet are June 15, when the 2020-2021 budget must be passed, and August 31, signifying the adjournment of the current two-year legislative session (aka “sine die”).

The only way the Legislature will now be able to get through all their business is either by diminishing their workload, extending their session through the currently scheduled Summer Recess and/or calling a “Special Session” after the August adjournment. Presumably a combination of these options will be deployed. In an April 10 letter to her members, Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins (D-San Diego) instructed them to limit their authored bill packages to only a handful: “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.” Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon (D-Los Angeles) indicated that of the approximate 3,000 bills introduced this year, the Legislature will only have the capacity to address 600-700 with particular attention to addressing COVID-19, wildfire relief efforts and homelessness.

Governor Newsom has already indicated he will completely revise his January 2020 proposed budget. According to the California Department of Finance, the state will need approximately $7 billion to fight COVID-19 in California. This coupled with an extension in the state and federal tax filings to July 15, means that the “May Revise” will instead become the “August Revise.” Tax revenue projections are uncertain, but unprecedented state unemployment numbers coupled with an ongoing downward spiral of the stock market, will yield a “baseline budget” or “workload budget.” This type of budget will simply maintain 2019-2020 existing spending levels.

Assembly Budget Chair Phil Ting (D-San Francisco) has already warned of potential budget cuts and has unilaterally rescinded 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, Assemblymember 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.”

On April 16, the newly created Senate Special Budget Subcommittee on COVID-19 Response held their first hearing at the Capitol, while allowing remote testimony. An unanticipated 10,000 users logged-on remotely. joining Senate Budget Chair Holly Mitchell (D-Los Angles) and Senator Budget Vice-Chair Jim Nielsen (R-Tehama). The Assembly Budget Subcommittee on Health and Human Services will hold their initial hearing on COVID-19 related budgetary items on April 20.

The Senate has also created a dedicated Special Committee on Pandemic Emergency Response, which will be chaired by Senator Lena Gonzalez (D-Long Beach) and vice-chaired by Senator Pat Bates (R-Laguna Niguel). According the April 15 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.”

While the statewide stay-at-home order remains in effect, stakeholders and the public are being strongly encouraged to participate in any legislative hearings via livestream and phone. However, the Capitol will be open to individuals wishing to attend these hearings in-person. Protocols to protect the public health and physical distancing guidelines will be strictly enforced, including temperature checks.

So what does all this mean for you? CAFP staff and your lobbying team will continue to engage directly with the governor’s office, legislators, the California Office of Emergency Services, the California Department of Public Health and other statewide agencies on guidance related to the movement of PPE and other medical assets. Even as you read this, we are fighting to ensure the financial integrity of family physician practices, physician groups, and clinics. This will require ongoing coordination with the California Medical Association and other stakeholders. It will also mean that CAFP advocacy efforts will focus on the state budget process, where financial and other economic priorities will be decided, including Song-Brown Primary Care Physician Training funding.

As we move through the COVID-19 surge phase, to suppression, to herd immunity, and finally to a vaccine, it will require a “new normal” lifestyle and advocacy practices that are prevention focused. Please stay safe and be careful, especially if you are on the COVID-19 frontlines.

For any additional questions, please fee free to contact me directly at bdocherty@ka-pow.com.

If you miss a day “Under the Dome” – you miss a lot!

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