In summary

Newsom’s coronavirus spending comes under scrutiny. Undocumented immigrants eligible for unemployment benefits. Voting by mail faces new test.

Good morning, California. It’s Thursday, April 16.

“We’re getting very little information”

Sen. Holly Mitchell will lead the Senate hearing reviewing California’s COVID-19 spending. Photo by Anne Wernikoff for CalMatters

California is responding quickly to the coronavirus, and many people think the state and the governor are doing a great job. But with billions of dollars being spent rapidly, there are growing questions about where the money is going and whether we’ll get what we’re paying for.

Today, in the first legislative hearing since the virus shut down state government a month ago, legislators are asking dozens of detailed questions, like “what protection clauses” are included in the $990 million contract Gov. Gavin Newsom inked with a private vendor for a monthly shipment of masks, and what “modeling (was) … used to develop the estimate and scope of the problem” for the $41 million allocated to relocate residents in impacted assisted living facilities.

Last Thursday, Sen. Holly Mitchell, a Los Angeles Democrat who will lead today’s hearing, asked for “full details” of the contract behind the monthly mask shipments. The contract has not yet been released, though Newsom’s emergency services director said it would be soon.

Mitchell also requested the administration launch, by early this week, a website tracking the state’s inventory of medical equipment and where it will be distributed. The website has not yet launched, and it’s unclear if one will. A spokesperson for the Department of Finance directed CalMatters to this website, which doesn’t provide the information Mitchell asked for.

What is known is that hard times are ahead.

California projects it will spend $7 billion in 2020 on its COVID-19 response. Yet it will receive only 39% of its normal revenue from April to June, primarily because of delayed tax payments. In a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the governor asked for $1 trillion to cover state and local government spending nationally, adding even that “level of assistance won’t replace the national decline in state and local revenue.”

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The Bottom Line: As of 9 p.m. Wednesday night, California had 27,071 confirmed coronavirus cases and 882 deaths from the virus, according to a Los Angeles Times tracker. (These numbers are different from those of the state Department of Public Health, which are updated less often.)

Also: CalMatters is tracking, by county, positive and suspected cases of COVID-19 patients hospitalized throughout the state. We’re also tracking the state’s daily actions. And we have an explainer for everything you need to know about California’s response to coronavirus.

Other stories you should know

1. Undocumented immigrants, independent contractors, gig workers now eligible for unemployment benefits

A construction worker in San Francisco on March 25. Photo by Anne Wernikoff for CalMatters

Newsom announced Wednesday that undocumented Californians are now eligible for coronavirus relief payments through a $125 million fund consisting of $75 million in state money and $50 million in philanthropic contributions, CalMatters’ Ana Ibarra reports. Undocumented workers can apply for a one-time payment of $500 per person or $1,000 per household. Newsom also extended unemployment benefits to independent contractors, gig workers and the self-employed. In addition, the state is significantly expanding its unemployment insurance department call center hours to meet unprecedented demand — 2.7 million Californians filed for unemployment last month.

2. Voting in the time of virus: Two special elections next month will test voting by mail

Photo by Dan Honda, Bay Area News Group

On May 12, California will hold two special elections to fill vacancies in Congress and the state Legislature — the state’s first major elections to be held amidst the coronavirus pandemic and “somewhat of a trial run in how … you conduct an election in a virtual space,” in the words of Rusty Hicks, chair of the California Democratic Party.

Both elections will be held almost entirely by mail, although not with the same level of infrastructure, CalMatters’ Laurel Rosenhall reports.

  • In the 25th Congressional District race, which covers parts of Los Angeles and Ventura counties, voters can drop off ballots at one of 22 locations and vote in person at nine locations complete with physical distancing rules and election workers wearing gloves and masks.
  • The 28th Senate District race in Riverside County will be held entirely by mail. The county isn’t opening any in-person voting locations and has just two ballot drop-off boxes.

3. Yes, really: $1 million per unit to build low-income housing

An affordable housing complex in downtown San Francisco

California faces a shortfall of roughly 1.3 million housing units for its lower-income residents, a number expected to skyrocket as COVID-19 continues to devastate the economy. That would be a massive gap to fill even if it were cheap and easy to build new housing in California, which it isn’t. Take the case of the Pearl, a Southern California apartment complex now unlikely to be built because it would cost the developer $1.1 million per unit. “People have some idea that building affordable housing has some basis in reality. It doesn’t,” the developer said. For more, check out the latest episode in the “Gimme Shelter” podcast, hosted by CalMatters’ Matt Levin and the Los Angeles Times’ Liam Dillon.

CalMatters commentary

CalMatters columnist Dan Walters: California is going to face a severe recession that will have schools and local governments looking to Sacramento for relief while the “nation-state of California” will look to Uncle Sam to avoid a fiscal meltdown.

Inside the battle over mail-in ballots: It isn’t about the potential for voter fraud; it’s about suppressing the vote of millions of Americans, argues Mindy Romero, director of the California Civic Engagement Project at USC’s Price School of Public Policy.

Protect pumas: California has an opportunity to make history this week and give protections to imperiled mountain lions by listing them under the state’s Endangered Species Act, write former state Sen. Fran Pavley and Beth Pratt, California regional director for the National Wildlife Federation.

Other things worth your time

California intensifies its crackdown on those disobeying the stay-at-home order. // The Los Angeles Times

LA may ban sporting events, concerts and other massive events through 2021. // The Los Angeles Times

A San Francisco AIDS conference changed Dr. Anthony Fauci’s life. // The San Francisco Chronicle

UC teaching assistants demanding increased pay are learning how to hold strikes online. // CalMatters College Journalism Network

California institutes some temporary freshwater fishing bans in rural communities amidst pandemic. // The Associated Press

Temporary agricultural workers can start work sooner and stay in the US longer to help keep food supply stable during pandemic. // The Salinas Californian

California DMV extends expiring driver’s licenses due to coronavirus. // The Los Angeles Times

Judge rules PG&E can use $19 million from its wildfire victims fund to cover administrative costs. // The Associated Press

Smoke from California wildfires increased risk of cardiac arrest by 70%, new study shows. // The San Francisco Chronicle

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See you tomorrow.

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Emily Hoeven writes the daily WhatMatters newsletter for CalMatters. Her reporting, essays, and opinion columns have been published in San Francisco Weekly, the Deseret News, the San Francisco Business...