Let the political jockeying begin — again.
With the surprise announcement Sunday that President-elect Joe Biden chose California Attorney General Xavier Becerra as his secretary of health and human services, Gov. Gavin Newsom could be staring down at least two — and quite possibly three — high-stakes political appointments. If Becerra is confirmed by the Senate, Newsom would appoint his successor. Meanwhile, Newsom still has to fill Vice President-elect Kamala Harris’ Senate seat, and if he chooses a state elected official — Secretary of State Alex Padilla is a frontrunner — he would then get to fill yet another top position. A California governor hasn’t had anything close to this level of appointment power in at least 70 years.
Newsom could launch yet another wave of political musical chairs if he chooses an elected representative to replace Becerra. An example: When then-Gov. Jerry Brown appointed Becerra as California attorney general in 2016 — incidentally, to replace Harris after she became a U.S. senator — that triggered a special election to fill Becerra’s seat in Congress. Assemblymember Jimmy Gomez won, triggering yet another special election to fill his seat in the state Assembly.
Against this tumultuous backdrop infused with chances to climb the political ladder, the state Legislature today returns to Sacramento to gavel in its two-year session and swear in members. Although the election saw Democrats hold on to supermajorities in the state Assembly and Senate, that doesn’t necessarily translate to consensus on pressing issues like pandemic solutions, economic stimulus, housing and homelessness, wildfire prevention and police reform — as showcased by the political infighting that doomed ambitious bills at the end of last session in August.
Here’s a peek at some key pandemic-related bills lawmakers plan to introduce this session:
- A bill extending the eviction moratorium through December 2021, requiring tenants to make at least 25% of their rent payments before that date to avoid eviction in 2022. The current eviction moratorium expires Jan. 31.
- A bill requiring a direct deposit option for unemployment benefits, following a CalMatters investigation into the state’s exclusive contract with Bank of America to distribute benefits via prepaid debit cards.
- A $1 billion “broadband for all” bill to bridge California’s digital divide.
The coronavirus bottom line: As of 9 p.m. Sunday night, California had 1,341,700 confirmed coronavirus cases and 19,876 deaths from the virus, according to a CalMatters tracker.
Also: CalMatters regularly updates its pandemic timeline tracking the state’s daily actions. And we’re also tracking the state’s coronavirus hospitalizations by county.
Other stories you should know
1. Most of California under lockdown
Around 33 million Californians are subject to a new regional lockdown that went into effect last night, shuttering vast swaths of the economy and restricting indoor shopping for at least three weeks amid a sustained surge in coronavirus hospitalizations. Southern California and the San Joaquin Valley were forced to implement the shutdown when their ICU capacities fell below 15% — the two regions had capacities of 10.3% and 6.6%, respectively. In addition, five Bay Area counties chose to shut down despite an ICU capacity of 24.1%. The Greater Sacramento region, with 18.2% ICU capacity, is teetering on the edge of a lockdown. The Northern California region currently has the highest ICU capacity, at 26.5%.
Ahead of the latest round of lockdowns, Californians rushed to stock up at the grocery store, get their hair cut and dine at their favorite restaurants, while bemoaning byzantine restrictions that closed playgrounds and outdoor dining while allowing retail stores to continue operating indoors with restrictions.
- Lito Saldana, a Bay Area restaurateur: “Why can stores stay open with 20% capacity when we have to close? I don’t know why it should be different.”
- Zachary Beckman, a Los Angeles parent: “I understand the need for safety, but the inconsistencies and lack of logic is very frustrating.”
2. Eviction cliff looms
More businesses being forced to close their doors or severely curtail operations doesn’t bode well for a state with a steadily growing unemployment backlog and nearly 2 million renters on the edge of an eviction cliff. In a new California Divide project called Staying Sheltered, CalMatters profiles four of these at-risk renters. Read their stories below:
- Aleida Ramirez lost all of her work at the start of the shutdown. After using all of her savings to keep her daughter and nephew sheltered, she missed rent for the first time in her life.
- Patricia Mendoza was already spending 75% of her take-home pay on rent before the pandemic. Since losing her job as a medical transport driver, the single mother of two can’t afford to pay her rent.
- Teresa Trabucco, a waitress, can only work when her son isn’t in class. She’s falling behind on rent and considering moving out of state.
- Susan Brzovich lost two of her three jobs at the start of the pandemic and is barely scraping by each month. Still, this once-homeless single mother says she feels rich compared to what she once had.
3. Fire season still isn’t over
To add to the state’s woes, around 8,500 PG&E customers in five Northern California counties could wake up without power this morning as the utility attempts to mitigate fire risk amid gusty winds. In Southern California, another round of fierce Santa Ana winds could result in more than 50,000 San Diego Gas and Electric customers losing power today. Some Orange County residents are still under evacuation orders from the Bond Fire, which ignited last week amid Santa Ana winds and forced thousands of evacuations. The blaze is now 50% contained.
Meanwhile, more problems have cropped up for PG&E. The perpetually beleaguered utility is facing fines that could total millions of dollars — and possible criminal penalties — for what two state agencies say is aggressive logging and grading work without permits in the Santa Cruz Mountains following the CZU Lightning Fire, the Mercury News reports. PG&E is also under investigation for potentially causing October’s deadly Zogg Fire.
4. Will CA approve housing on an ecological preserve?
On Tuesday, the California Wildlife Conservation Board will make what is likely to be its most controversial decision in more than 70 years of existence: whether to allow construction of a luxury housing development on a San Diego ecological reserve home to a federally endangered butterfly, in exchange for several other parcels of land. Further complicating matters, the board’s chairman won’t be voting — because he engineered the proposed land swap alongside the developer and county officials, the San Diego Union-Tribune reports. Proponents say the land exchange will provide desperately needed housing and benefit the butterfly in the long run, while nearly 60 environmental groups say the proposal is illegal and will destroy the very habitat the state sought to protect. The contentious vote could set a major precedent for overturning restrictions on state-protected lands.
- Dan Silver of the Endangered Habitats League: “To put suburban sprawl on ecological land is unheard of. Nothing vaguely like this has ever happened.”
- John Donnelly, executive director of the Wildlife Conservation Board: “The exchange … is probably the smartest action we could take at this time.”
CalMatters columnist Dan Walters: The California Legislature reconvenes today for what may be its most unusual session in the state’s 170-year history.
Six strategies for health equity: The state should keep these in mind as it enters contract negotiations with Medi-Cal managed care plans, argues Kiran Savage Sangwan of the California Pan Ethnic Health Network.
Reject San Diego County land swap: The California Wildlife Conservation Board rarely takes controversial action — but that could change on Tuesday, write Dan Silver of Endangered Habitats League and Pamela Flick of Defenders of Wildlife.
Entrepreneurship alive and well: Undaunted by the pandemic, student entrepreneurs are turning their ideas into successful businesses, write Amy Stursberg of the Blackstone Charitable Foundation and Victoria Slivkoff of the UC system.
Other things worth your time
How California college students are using Instagram to shame inappropriate pandemic behavior. // CalMatters
Majority of California’s medically vulnerable prisoners weren’t considered for release. // San Francisco Chronicle
Real estate prices climb 25% in parts of California amid pandemic. // CalMatters
California’s struggling recycling industry faces new woes amid pandemic. // Los Angeles Times
Nissan pulls out of Trump administration’s emissions fight with California. // KTLA
How safe is the water off the coast of the San Onofre nuclear plant? // San Diego-Union Tribune
Los Angeles ends year with worst smog in decades. // Los Angeles Times
Newsom names Angie Wei as new legislative director. // Politico
City Hall scandal: Why were lavishly paid public servants allegedly bribed for so little? // San Francisco Chronicle
San Francisco releases most detailed plan yet for homeless living in hotels. // San Francisco Chronicle
Critics blast Alameda County for closing most homeless hotels by February. // San Francisco Chronicle
California monolith removed, replaced with a cross. // New York Times
See you tomorrow.
Tips, insight or feedback? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Follow me on Twitter: @emily_hoeven
Subscribe to CalMatters newsletters here.