Walters: A Legislative Session Shaped by Pandemic
The California Legislature will reconvene Monday for what may be its most unusual session in the state’s 170-year history.
Even the manner of its first meeting of the biennial session will be odd due to concerns about the surging COVID-19 pandemic. The 80-member state Assembly will initially gather in Sacramento’s Golden One basketball arena because its Capitol chambers aren’t large enough for individual distancing.
During their fitful meetings in the summer, legislators experimented with various alternatives to in-person committee and floor conclaves, such as telecommuting. But legislative leaders wrangled over what was and was not legal, and the unresolved conflict affected what happened during the session’s final hours in August.
Even if they work out the mechanics of legislating during a pandemic, it will dominate what legislators do over the next nine months — most obviously in writing a 2021-22 state budget that accounts for a state economy in unpredictable turmoil and uncertain state revenues.
The Capitol’s dominant Democrats hope that once Joe Biden is sworn in as president, another massive federal aid package will be enacted to shore up education, welfare and health spending that was curtailed in the 2020-21 budget due to projections of steep revenue declines.
However, it turned out that revenues were less impacted than feared because upper-income Californians, who pay most of the taxes, have maintained their taxable incomes by working from home.
The Pandemic Did Not Erase Issues That Had Been Vexing the Legislature for Years
Another pandemic-related issue hanging over the new session is whether lawmakers will allow Gov. Gavin Newsom to continue running the state under an emergency decree, largely bypassing legislative input.
Legislators were willing to cede authority in the initial stages of the health crisis last spring, but as the year wore on, even Newsom’s fellow Democrats began to complain about one-man rule and Republicans challenged his authority in court with some success.
Of course, the pandemic did not erase issues that had been vexing the Legislature for years, such as the state’s housing crisis and its close relatives, homelessness and poverty. In many ways, COVID-19 has worsened them and other problems, such as the “achievement gap” in public schools.
Finally, the Legislature itself has changed as Democrats padded their already immense majorities in both houses. The Legislature’s most liberal members — they would say “progressive” — are becoming more vocal about using those supermajorities to remake California’s socioeconomic matrix.
That intent was voiced last week in a New York Times interview with the Legislature’s youngest new member, 25-year-old Alex Lee of San Jose.
An Interesting Subtext to What Already Shapes up as a Session for the History Books
“I felt like we have a Democratic ultra, super majority, right? We have all the executive positions. And yet we can’t seem to do the things that are big and progressive,” Lee told the Times. “We haven’t gotten universal health care, or even close to it. We haven’t guaranteed housing for everyone. Wealth inequality is out of control. There’s something deeply wrong about that. And I think that frustration in the system drove me to run.
“On Dec. 7, which is swearing-in day, I’m going to introduce a bill to prohibit candidates in California from taking corporate money or business entity money and to build a publicly financed election system to incentivize people to opt out.
“My ultimate goal is to lean on public social housing as a strong alternative means for the production of housing. Right now, the for-profit market has basically a monopoly on housing production. And cities and localities basically can only negotiate within those confines.”
Whether Lee and like-minded legislators can advance their left-leaning agenda will be an interesting subtext to what already shapes up as a session for the history books.
CalMatters is a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s state Capitol works and why it matters. For more stories by Dan Walters, go to calmatters.org/commentary.