California state legislators were back at work Monday, with a long list of urgent items to address. (Shutterstock)

California state legislators were back at work Monday, with a long list of urgent items to address. (Shutterstock)

Send money quickly to schools, businesses and the poor, Gavin Newsom urges returning lawmakers

Legislature has not yet signed on to specific budget proposals

Sophia Bollag, Hannah Wiley, Lara Korte, and Kim Bojórquez

The Sacramento Bee

Gov. Gavin Newsom is asking lawmakers to hit the ground running as they return Monday, pressing them to act immediately on billions in new spending proposals to help California families harmed by the coronavirus.

The Democratic governor argues the traditional budget process will take too long for families and businesses struggling to make it through the pandemic. Spending approved through the regular 2021 budget won’t kick in until July 1, when the state’s next fiscal year begins.

Instead, Newsom wants lawmakers to consider his plans to spend billions of dollars in higher-than expected revenue, including $2 billion for California schools and $2.4 billion in direct aid to poor families, as soon as they return.

“In this environment, we can’t wait as we traditionally have for the fiscal year to end,” Newsom said during a Friday press conference to announce his plan.

But lawmakers have not yet signed on to the specific proposals, meaning they’ll still need to negotiate final deals.

Legislative leaders, including Senate Budget Chair Nancy Skinner, a Berkeley Democrat, said they agree lawmakers should spend some of the money quickly. Skinner expressed support for the areas Newsom has highlighted, including getting students back into the classroom and prioritizing low-income Californians.

More effort also is needed to speed up vaccination efforts, Skinner said.

“We just need to all roll up our sleeves to make sure that we’ve got the systems in line, whether it requires funding or not, to do that,” she said.

Newsom’s proposal to quickly approve money for school reopenings will also likely require some bargaining.

State officials are constitutionally bound to send the money to schools under the state’s education finance laws, which require a certain portion of state revenue go to education. But Newsom wants lawmakers to approve the $2 billion as soon as possible in an effort to get kids back in classrooms.

Under his plan, the money would be reserved for schools that reopen beginning in February to use for COVID-19 testing, ventilation and personal protective equipment like masks. To receive the funds, districts have to outline how they plan to consistently test students and staff, and describe their vaccination and sanitation protocols.

School district leaders are still lobbying for more assistance, however, and want to debate which pot of money should be used. They argue against using constitutionally-mandated education funding instead of public health dollars to finance the effort.

“I don’t think that’s an unreasonable request,” said Assemblyman Kevin McCarty, a Sacramento Democrat who chairs the Assembly Budget Subcommittee on Education Finance. “That issue will certainly be on the table, and we’ll discuss that in the coming weeks.”

The governor has additionally proposed extending the state’s eviction moratorium, which lawmakers and Newsom enacted last year to stop a wave of evictions of people who lost income because of the pandemic and can’t pay rent.

The eviction ban is set to expire at the end of this month, a deadline that Democrats said requires haste in the Capitol to avoid what Assemblyman David Chiu, D-San Francisco, called an “eviction cliff.”

“I very, very much appreciate the governor’s support for extending the eviction moratorium,” Chiu said. “To ensure that millions of Californians are not evicted from their homes during the deadliest wave of this pandemic.”

Chiu proposed Assembly Bill 15 to lengthen the ban until the end of the year. But if discussions this year look anything like the months of intense negotiations between landlord associations and tenants’ groups in 2020, Chiu and his legislative colleagues have plenty to work on before the moratorium expires at the end of the month.

“My office and I have been in discussions through the holidays with the key stakeholders to work through what an extension of the eviction moratorium would look like,” he said.

The current moratorium protects to renters who have lost money because of the pandemic, but they’re still required to pay at least a quarter total of their rent. Newsom won’t say how long he wants to extend renter protections.

Newsom is also asking lawmakers to quickly approve billions of dollars in direct aid for low-income California families and nearly $650 million in small business support.

Republicans want more business assistance, saying that nearly a year of fluctuating restrictions has devastated certain industries.

Assemblyman James Gallagher, R-Yuba City, said he’s concerned about money getting to small businesses and schools. The Yuba City Republican said Newsom’s budget presents a lot of splash, but not enough substance. Gallagher said lawmakers should focus on ensuring money goes to programs that work.

“This governor has not been very good at implementation,” he said. “He’s good at announcing big ideas and big projects that don’t come to fruition.”

Some Democrats argue Newsom’s plan doesn’t do enough for those who need the most help.

Sen. Maria Elena Durazo, D-Los Angeles, was dismayed that Newsom isn’t planning to expand eligibility for state health care to undocumented seniors during a pandemic that has disproportionately affected Latino communities. Newsom had proposed the expansion for undocumented people over age 65 last year, but cut it after the pandemic hit and the state faced a projected budget deficit.

“It is unconscionable … that we have more money than expected that we would not include them,” Durazo said.

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