California Legislature postpones return because of virus
SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — California lawmakers won’t return on April 13 as they had planned, extending the Legislature’s first unscheduled break in 158 years and leaving Gov. Gavin Newsom in charge of spending billions of dollars to combat the COVID-19 outbreak with little direct oversight.
Lawmakers recessed on March 16 after they agreed to give Newsom $1 billion to spend on responding to the virus. The money is tied to Newsom’s emergency declaration, and he has broad authority to spend it as he sees fit. He’s also tapped another $1.3 billion in emergency reserves.
Friday, legislative leaders announced they planned to reconvene on May 4.
Since March 12, Newsom has issued more than a dozen executive orders that have suspended standardized testing for public school students, delayed evictions by two months, suspended open meetings laws for local governments and directed all of the state’s nearly 40 million residents to stay at home indefinitely.
Meanwhile, state courts have powered down, delaying routine hearings and slowing their work.
Assemblywoman Melissa Melendez said so far Newsom has done a good job wielding power.
“We have to trust him to do that, but how long can we go on, handing over the authority that we all have as legislators in the jobs that we’re supposed to be carrying out?” she said. “There are three branches of government and one does not get to hold everyone else at bay in times of crisis.”
Newsom has been giving the Legislature regular updates on spending. Of the $1 billion, Newsom has spent $361.8 million as of Thursday, according to the Department of Finance spokesman H.D. Palmer.
“We’re keeping the Legislature fully apprised of what we’re doing in that regard,” Palmer said.
Lawmakers had hoped to return on April 13. But California is still under a mandatory “stay at home” order. The state now has more than 11,100 cases and more than 245 deaths, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University. And state officials are warning of a surge of cases that could overwhelm hospitals if people don’t obey public health orders.
“Our top priority has to remain helping flatten the COVID-19 transmission curve to prevent our health care systems from being overwhelmed,” Sen. Toni Atkins, president pro tempore of the Senate, said Friday.
Local governments and state boards and commissions have continued to meet via teleconference and other electronic means, actions made possible because Newsom suspended portions of the state’s open meeting laws that required public bodies to vote together in public.
But those laws don’t apply to the Legislature, whose actions are governed by the state Constitution. Before recessing, the Senate agreed to change its rules allowing lawmakers to meet remotely. But the Assembly did not after leaders questioned its legality.
“There appear to be many practical and constitutional obstacles that would make remote voting a challenge,” said Katie Talbot, spokeswoman for Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon. “The Assembly is currently exploring all options to do its duty.”
Some state legislatures have met remotely, although under their state constitutions. Others have more creative solutions. In Arkansas, lawmakers met in a 5,600-seat basketball arena to ensure they could stay far away from each other and not spread the virus.
California state Sen. Scott Wiener said he supports the Legislature taking a recess during the pandemic, but said it “must reconvene” at some point. “We have a responsibility to take whatever steps are necessary to stabilize health, safety and economic well being,” he said.
The only thing the state Constitution requires lawmakers do this year is pass an operating budget by June 15. If they don’t, lawmakers won’t get paid.
“I don’t know how essential we really are,” Assemblyman Mark Stone said. “If we’re just working on all the same bills we introduced two months ago, well maybe we’re not that essential.
Associated Press reporters Kathleen Ronayne and Don Thompson contributed.