Legislative Update: 2.26.21

Edelstein Gilbert Robson & Smith

February 19 marked the passage of the deadline for legislators to introduce bills for the 2021 session.  The Legislature struggled throughout 2020 to meet legislative deadlines.  With only a few hearing rooms large enough to allow social distancing, legislators were forced to conduct their business with fewer hearings.  Hundreds of bills failed to pass given that limitation.  Then at the end of session the Legislature ground to a halt as the Assembly and Senate fought with each other over their inability to move each other’s priority bills fast enough.

Despite all of this, the Legislature was not very gun-shy about its workload, introducing 2300 bills.  It’s always true that not every introduced bill moves, but this is still a daunting amount of potential work in light of the Legislature’s limitations.

The Legislature will address this challenge in a few ways.  Normally bills must be in print for 30 days before the Legislature takes any action on them, including hearing the bill or amending it.  The Senate has waived this rule allowing them to hear bills immediately.  The Assembly has yet to follow suit, but it is likely that policy committee Chairs will be given a lot of latitude to decide which bills to hear and which to let die.  At the same time, the reliable rumor is that there will be an unofficial limit placed on the number of bills each Assembly member can move out of the Assembly.

Golden State Stimulus

This week, the Legislature passed and the Governor signed a $7.6 billion stimulus package.  As we reported previously, the Governor called on the Legislature to take immediate action on these measures in early January.

The Legislature largely made good on the Governor’s promise to put money directly into the pockets of needy Californians approving $600 one-time payments to Californians making less than $30,000 per year and for those receiving benefits from CalWorks.  The Stimulus package also includes additional funding for an existing grant program to provide small businesses with grants up to $25,000 and waived a number of business and licensing fees.

School Reopening

While the Legislature has now approved the Governor’s spending plan, negotiations continue on school reopening two weeks after the Governor reported that he and the Legislature were close to agreement.

In a rare move for a California Democrat, Governor Newsom has been willing to cross the California Teacher’s Association (CTA) who have opposed his efforts to reopen schools more quickly.  The Governor initially called for elementary school students to return to the classroom by February and offered $2 billion to facilitate safe reopening guidelines as incentive money.

As we reported two weeks ago, vaccination has been the biggest sticking point, with teachers wanting that as a precondition to returning to in person work.  As negotiations have dragged on, the CTA launched an ad campaign last week which notes the importance of prioritizing vaccines for educators.

The Governor continues to point out that California will not receive enough vaccine doses to vaccinate enough educators to get them back in the classroom before the summer.  Nevertheless, Democrats in the Legislature continue to take CTA’s lead and buck the Governor.  Last week, Assembly and Senate leadership unveiled a $12.6 billion proposal which includes $2 billion of safe reopening funding and $6 billion in federal funds.

The legislative plan calls for only the most vulnerable students, including those that are homeless, English learners, have no access to distance learning tools, and those at risk of abuse and neglect, to return to classrooms by April 15.  The plan would also allow schools to reopen K-6 learning in counties with a rate of seven infections per 100,000 residents.  Critically, however, school staff would not have to return to work until vaccinated and school districts must reach a collective bargaining agreement with unions by April 1.

The Governor was cautiously but clearly critical of this plan last week and expressed his opposition.  Meanwhile, Democrats in the Legislature threatened to send it to his desk anyways but have yet to do so.

Recall Update

Proponents of the effort to recall Governor Newsom continue to inch closer to qualifying the recall and reported last week that they have collected over 1.7 million signatures and submitted 1.3 to election officials for validation.  To date, just over 668,000 have been confirmed valid.  Nevertheless, proponents continue to be optimistic as only a relatively low rate of signatures have been rejected so far.

Meanwhile, the Governor’s potential opponents in a recall election, businessman John Cox and former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer, are campaigning hard on the fact that the Governor and Legislature have yet to agree to a school reopening plan.  It’s a good campaign strategy for Republican candidates in a state dominated by Democrats.  School reopening is an issue that frustrates parents regardless of their political affiliations.

While it’s good politics, it’s hard to say what either candidate would do to improve the situation.  When asked by Politico this week if they would suspend collective bargaining, an option that would in all likelihood quickly be overturned by the Legislature, both candidates said no.  Cox went on to say that he would seek ways to expand access to Charter schools, another proposal that would meet a swift end in the Legislature.

Faulconer said that “it’s about sitting down at the table and demanding results.”  Having been in negotiations in the Governor’s Office many times, we seriously doubt this hasn’t been tried already.