The California Assembly and Senate announced that their return to session date has been moved from April 13th to May 4th as stay-at-home orders have been extended statewide until at least the end of April.
Reconvening on May 4th
The COVID-19 coronavirus lockdown has left Governor Gavin Newsom as virtually the person in charge of major state decisions. Due to state of emergency powers granted last month, Governor Newsom has sole authority on how to spend $1 billion of emergency funding granted by the legislature, as well as emergency orders he can issue through executive orders.
“He hasn’t done anything wild to date,” noted ‘Dana’, who works at the state capitol. “He issued a stay-at-home order, but that was to control the virus. He delayed evictions statewide, but that was to not make the housing crisis worse. Basically everything he has done has been in the interest of public safety, and nothing he has passed has really angered anyone in the Senate or the Assembly. They’ve all been things that would have passed.”
“What I have been seeing is a lot of frustration and worry from many Senators and Assembly members over him having sole control for so long. I’ve sat in on a few informal conversations, and there have been concerns raised. Setting a May 4th date was not taken lightly. Everyone still trusts the Governor, but Newsom also knows that everything that he does will be scrutinized more than usual, especially with him being on the national stage now.”
“He also doesn’t want to ruin any presidential chances now, because in the elections ahead a big question for candidates will be what they did for the people during this time.”
“Lawmakers themselves have raised concerns publicly.”
“We have to trust him to do that, but how long can we go on, handing over the authority that we all have as legislators in the jobs that we’re supposed to be carrying out?” said Assemblywoman Melissa Melendez (R-Lake Elsinore), who had also agreed that Newsom has handled power decently so far. “There are three branches of government and one does not get to hold everyone else at bay in times of crisis.”
Possible solutions for reconvening the legislature without the State Capitol Building
Lawmakers are currently trying to find workarounds for the coming weeks, as the state constitution legally requires an agreed upon budget by June 15th.
One such workaround had been passed before the Senate and Assembly left session in mid-March. Senate Resolution 86, authored by Senator Pro Tem Toni Atkins (D-San Diego), will allow Senator Atkins to assign, remove, and replace any Senate committee member during an emergency, along with authorizing members to attend remotely.
However, SR 86 has come under legal scrutiny as only the Governor, by law, has that kind of authority. It also goes against open meeting laws. While the Governor has suspended many locally so local governments can operate, state government doesn’t have that luxury, also making SR 86 illegal.
While the Senate decision for operating remotely is currently in flux, the Assembly did not pass such a motion, with Assembly members citing ‘practical and constitutional obstacles’. The Assembly’s decision also blocks any laws or decisions from being passed by the Senate, as any bill would need both houses for approval.
Other options are also being explored. While not confirmed by California, many states are looking into the measures taken place by Arkansas, which set social distancing for their Assembly and used a college basketball arena in Little Rock to accommodate the space needed to follow CDC guidelines.
“Arkansas right now is being partially run out of an arena,” chuckled Dana. “I haven’t heard of this happening for California, but if you add face masks and sanitizer, we could be able to do this. Who knows.”
While the May 4th date is the current planned end to the first unplanned legislature stoppage in California in 158 years, high coronavirus numbers in California in late April may move the date back again.