Legislative Update: Director of Public Health Resigns

Edelstein Gilbert Robson & Smith

The state’s Director of Public Health, Dr. Sonia Angell, resigned Sunday after a week of embarrassing revelations for the Governor’s Administration. During his July 3 press conference, Governor Newsom pointed out a 21% weekly drop in confirmed cases of COVID-19 and described it as a positive signs for the state’s efforts to combat the spread of the virus.  However, the next day, Health and Human Services Agency Secretary Dr. Mark Ghaly noted that he had become aware of discrepancies in the state’s testing numbers after the Governor’s press conference the day before.

Last Friday, Dr. Ghaly elaborated on those discrepancies and explained that California was facing an alarming backlog of 300,000 tests.  This is an extremely significant number given that California was reporting a total of only 540,000 confirmed cases at the time.  Dr. Ghaly explained that the discrepancy stemmed from two issues.  First, a server outage that occurred on July 25 created a delay in records coming into state systems.  This was compounded by a failure of the Department of Public Health to renew an electronic certificate necessary for the state’s largest commercial lab, Quest Diagnostics, to submit data to the state over a five day period.

Dr. Angell’s resignation was effective immediately, leading some to speculate that in reality she was asked to step aside following the state’s failures.  The Governor hinted that this was the case during his Monday press conference this week saying, “I accepted her resignation. We’re all accountable in our respective roles for what happens underneath us.”

Sandra Shewry, a Vice President of the California Healthcare Foundation and former Schwarzenegger Administration Official, will serve as acting Director of Public Health.  Meanwhile Dr. Erica Pan, who recently joined the Newsom Administration, will step into the role of acting Public Health Officer.

So Many Ideas, So Little Time

On Wednesday, Governor Newsom laid out several major issues that need to be resolved before the Legislature adjourns on August 31.  Under the broad umbrella of “economic recovery” the Governor outlined issues related to economic stimulus, worker protections, and housing.

Regarding economic stimulus, the Governor promoted accelerating investments in green infrastructure, wildfire prevention, grid hardening, and expanded workforce training.  He also noted the need for a small business hiring credit.  All of these investments require either new revenue or accelerated use of unspent bond funding.

In terms of worker protections, the Governor outlined the need for expanded family leave, paid sick leave, and workers’ compensation.  While bills are moving through the Legislature on these subjects, the Governor has not weighed in publicly on exactly what he wants them to look like.

On housing, the Governor expressed a need to reach agreement on eviction protection for renters.  The Governor has issued several Executive Orders on this subject, and the Judicial Council just extended their statewide eviction moratorium until September 1 to give the Legislative and Executive branches more time to frame a proposal.  During his press conference, the Governor noted that good conversations were happening in the Legislature and said something would come out in the next two weeks.

However, that is exactly how much time is left in the 2019-2020 session, which must end at midnight on August 31.  Any bill that is to become law cannot be amended after August 28 given the need for bills to be in print for 72 hours before passage.  It is by no means impossible for the Governor and the Legislature to come to agreement on many of the proposals above by the end of session, but the clock is ticking.  The Governor and legislative leadership are being unusually tight lipped about the negotiations and their priorities, begging the question of exactly how productive those discussions are.

Governor Newsom has previously faced criticism from the Legislature for not weighing in on major proposals until very late in the year.  In 2019, the Governor changed his position on a number of high profile issues such as vaccination requirements for students and rent control for apartments in the final month of session after striking a deals with the Legislature earlier in the year.  While the Governor got his way in both instances, the moves led to open criticism from legislators.

House Warfare

Feuding between the Assembly and Senate could also impede any end of session deal-making.  As we previously reported, fighting between the houses kicked off when Senate Committee Chairs refused to hear some of the more than five hundred bills sent to them by the Assembly.  In response, Assembly Committees delayed hearings, killed Senate bills, and openly acknowledged they were doing so in retaliation.

The Assembly’s tactics appear to have paid off.  Senate Committees added Assembly bills back onto their agendas and scheduled new meetings to pass bills they had declined to take up in previous hearings.

Tensions continue to run high though, and there is reason to believe they are about to get worse.  All bills with state cost must be referred to the Appropriations Committee in each house.  These “fiscal” bills regularly die in the second house’s Appropriations Committee.  With the state’s continuing budget crisis, that’s an even more likely scenario in 2020. This second wave of lost bills could kick off another round of hostage taking and tension between the houses by the end of next week.  If so, it will be one more impediment to deal making in the Legislature.

We will keep you apprised of further developments.

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