On Monday, the Assembly Budget Committee conducted an oversight hearing on Governor Gavin Newsom’s COVID-19 coronavirus plan, as well as Newsom’s emergency powers and the $7 billion he has spent on measures so far.
Praise and frustration against the Governor
The 11 members of the committee, who were placed around the meeting to practice safe social distancing practices, both praised and admonished the Governor for his actions. Many commended the Governor’s efforts with even some of his critics noting that the curve had flattened thanks in part to the state lockdown.
“I applauded the administration for the multi-faceted approach to slow the spread,” said Assemblyman Adam Gray (D-Merced). “A lot has been done right.”
Other Assembly members also noted the usefulness of the constant state updates on what it was doing about coronavirus.
However, some Assembly members noted that, with a state budget being due by June 30th, they should have been kept in the loop more when it came to his spending. Some Assembly members noted that they only found out about some spending from watching one of his press conferences.
“We are constantly hearing and being asked about where the PPE is, how hospitals got chosen to open, where resources are being deployed, how decisions are being made in terms of who’s making decisions around hotels and motels,” noted Assemblyman and Budget Committee Chair Phil Ting (D-San Francisco). “The emergency powers that were granted were with an understanding that this would be for a certain amount of discreet time. It wasn’t the sense that there was a blank check or we would just be notified after expenditures were already committed to.”
Questions of communication and legal authority
Others wanted more information to give their constituents during the crisis but could not because of the Governor’s lack of communication with many lawmakers.
“The need to get accurate information to the constituents about what was happening was tough,” pointed out Assemblyman William Brough (R-Dana Point).
Lawmakers in rural areas also noted a lack of resources going out to them, as the current recovery funds have been heavily invested in the Bay Area and around Los Angeles. Some questioned when, if ever, those areas would receive assistance.
“It’s time to see what we can do better,” continued Assemblyman Gray. “We are often told in rural California that we are going to be taken care of later. Later never comes.”
And then many lawmakers during the hearing questioned whether Newsom was even operating legally in making huge decisions alone during the last month. His high spending since mid-March, such as a $1 billion deal on getting face masks to California, was directly questioned.
“My question was not whether this was needed, whether or not this was wise,” said Assemblyman Jay Obernolte (R-Big Bear). “My question was whether the governor had the statutory authority to spend on social safety net programs.”
Newsom has justified spending $7 billion on coronavirus measures, saying that the federal government would be footing most of the bill and that it would save the lives of countless Californians.
Unanswered questions from California departments and agencies
With a new state budget now looming, and not enough in reserves now to fill the gaps, many lawmakers throughout the hearing continued to demand information to act upon. The Legislative Analyst’s Office said that the state Legislature needed a lot more information on budget matters and Newsom’s plans in the coming weeks, but many of Newsom’s administration members in the hearing could not give them specifics.
The Department of Finance noted that the May revision for the budget could not be given for another month due to not knowing how much California will be receiving or spending yet monetarily.
The Department of Health and Human Services couldn’t give an answer to the simple question of how many coronavirus tests would be needed to lift social distancing.
Every state official also refused to answer questions about the $1 billion mask deal, noting that it would ‘negatively impact the supply chain.’
“It’s amazing to me how little the Governor’s people were giving. They didn’t even give ballpark figures or ranges, which is what usually happens during these hearings,” explained ‘Dana’, a legislative worker at the State Capitol Building. “And they were all saying that [Newsom] did a good job stopping it. But as soon as they asked for some kind of say in the spending it seemed like stonewalls went up.”
“Part of it is understandable. There are legitimate limits right now in saying what some spending figures are or what supplies will be needed. We don’t know the full extent of COVID-19 yet. Many also don’t want to say wrong information and then get called out on it later.”
“But this was the Budget Committee, the people who need to know this. A range or a guesstimate would give something to work with.”
“It’s so strange. I’ve never seen a Governor or his staff be this distant before in hearings like this. It was so guarded.”
“I hope we get better figures soon to work with here. How else can you really build and compromise on a budget like that?”
The Assembly Budget Committee is due to meet again next Monday.