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Wednesday, May 27, 2020

By Adam Beam


SACRAMENTO (AP)—California Gov. Gavin Newsom's decision to take an extra $1.8 billion from the state's dwindling coffers for the coronavirus response brought a stern rebuke Friday from some lawmakers who worry he is reaching beyond his authority to spend money during an emergency.

The Newsom administration says it can spend the money, citing the state's Emergency Services Act. But lawmakers pushed back on Friday, with Assembly Budget Committee chairman Phil Ting noting things like cancer and heart disease kill many more people per year than coronavirus.

“The governor does not have complete authority to do whatever he wants to fight those diseases,” said Ting, a San Francisco Democrat.

The dispute is part of a growing conflict at state Capitols across the country over how much power governors should have to spend money during a pandemic that has crippled the nation's economy. Many legislatures have had to suspend their sessions during the pandemic to comply with state orders on physical distancing, meaning even less oversight for the executive branch. California's Legislature missed about two months of work before returning this month.

Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon, a Democrat from Lakewood, said he was on a phone call recently with about 35 other speakers from legislatures and “that theme was identical everywhere.”

“It was nearly unanimous. We all kind of feel like we want to slow things down,” he said. “Us coming back to town, I think, is the best thing to make that happen.”

The new spending Newsom announced Thursday will bring the state's total to $5.7 billion since March, when he issued the nation's first stay-at-home order.

Newsom, a Democrat, has asked the Democratic-controlled Legislature for an additional $2.9 billion to spend as he pleases should a second wave of coronavirus cases hit the state this fall when lawmakers are not in session. He is also trying to control how to spend $9.5 billion in federal aid. And he has asked for broad authority over how to spend a number of other state funds, including the money generated by the state's cap and trade program to reduce pollution.

“To me, these (requests), especially that aren't specifically in regards to the emergency, seemed very much out of place and a huge overreach of authority,” Ting told administration officials at a public hearing Friday. “This is very concerning, especially given that your agency has shown a disdain to properly communicate with the Legislature.”

Department of Finance spokesman H.D. Palmer said the administration has sent lawmakers all of the required notifications and will continue to “redouble our efforts” moving forward.

Vivek Viswanathan, chief deputy director for budget at the Department of Finance, noted that while deaths from things like cancer and heart disease are “somewhat predictable,” no one knows what the future of COVID-19 will look like because it is a new disease.

He said flexibility is necessary under the emergency provisions. “We want this emergency to go away just as much as you do.”

The administration says it expects the federal government to reimburse the state for 75% of its coronavirus-related spending. But that won't be enough to cover the state's plummeting revenues caused by millions of people losing their jobs. Lawmakers are debating how to cover an estimated $54.3 billion budget deficit

Department of Finance Director Keely Martin Bosler said in a letter to lawmakers that most of the new spending—$1.3 billion—will pay for personal protective equipment. More than $445 million will go to Chinese electric vehicle manufacturer BYD, which last month secured a $1 billion contract with the state to deliver 200 million masks a month.

But BYD has had trouble fulfilling that contract. Earlier this month, it refunded the state $247 million after it missed a deadline to certify that the masks it delivered comply with federal standards.

A statement from BYD said federal regulators found no issues with the quality of the masks but said “there were findings related to documentation control paperwork. All are easily fixable.”

The rest of the new state spending will pay for a call center and the state's efforts to test people for the virus and track down people who have been exposed to it. It will also buy an extra 3,000 hospital beds and pay for hotel rooms for healthcare workers who treat COVID-19 patients.