What a difference a day makes.
On Tuesday, California was still wrangling with the Trump administration, as evidenced by nine final-hour lawsuits filed by Attorney General Xavier Becerra — bringing his four-year total to a staggering 122 lawsuits.
Today, Joe Biden and Kamala Harris will be sworn in as president and vice president of the United States, ushering in what many California Democrats hope will be a new era of less contention and more collaboration. Hours later, Harris is expected to swear in Alex Padilla as California’s first Latino senator. (For more on what Padilla hopes to accomplish, check out his interview with CalMatters’ Laurel Rosenhall.) And the Golden State could gain yet another powerful ally in Washington if the Senate confirms Becerra as Health and Human Services secretary.
In a Tuesday letter to Biden, Gov. Gavin Newsom expressed California’s eagerness “to support your bold agenda by sharing our experiences implementing progressive policy on everything from workers’ rights to climate change.” But even as Newsom depicted California as a model for national programs, he hinted at numerous challenges facing the state. Here’s a breakdown of key requests Newsom made of the Biden-Harris administration:
- Funding for California’s beleaguered high-speed rail project, which is years behind schedule and billions of dollars over budget.
- Funding to sustain programs like Project Homekey, an effort to permanently house homeless Californians in hotels and motels.
- Authority for California to set its own emissions standards, the subject of protracted legal battles with the Trump administration.
- Emergency funding for state and local governments, which wasn’t included in the December stimulus package.
Newsom also asked Biden to postpone the date by which California must begin repaying, with interest, the money it’s borrowed from the federal government to pay unemployment claims. California’s unemployment insurance fund deficit was around $21.5 billion at the end of 2020 and is expected to reach $48.3 billion this year. Under current law, California would need to make its first interest payment by Sept. 30 — but Newsom wants that deadline extended through 2023.
The coronavirus bottom line: As of Tuesday, California had 2,996,968 confirmed cases (+0.8% from previous day) and 33,739 deaths (+0.4% from previous day), according to a CalMatters tracker.
Also: CalMatters regularly updates this pandemic timeline tracking the state’s daily actions. And we’re tracking the state’s coronavirus hospitalizations by county.
Other stories you should know
1. State ‘shortchanged’ small counties, auditor says
Speaking of federal aid, State Auditor Elaine Howle slammed Newsom’s administration Tuesday for failing to distribute coronavirus relief funds equally among counties. According to Howle’s report, California’s 16 biggest counties received $190 or $197 per person while the 42 smaller counties got $102 per person — even though the smaller counties’ needs “were at least the same if not greater.” The report also found that Newsom’s administration “treated some cities inconsistently.” In July, the administration withheld federal funds from two small Central Valley cities for failing to comply with state health orders, but was “unable to demonstrate that it reviewed all 476 cities” with the same scrutiny, Howle wrote.
- H.D. Palmer, spokesman for the state Department of Finance: “If the Auditor’s office has concerns over this process, they should take their policy recommendations directly to the Legislature — which voted to approve the specific mechanism that governed our actions.”
The news comes amid a slowly improving coronavirus picture in California. Hospitalizations have fallen by 8.5% over the past two weeks, though more than 20,000 people remain hospitalized or in intensive care. But challenges remain. After the state issued a warning about a specific batch of Moderna vaccines, Stanislaus County shuttered its community vaccine clinics. High winds forced a mass vaccination site in Orange County to close Tuesday. And San Francisco Mayor London Breed warned that the city’s public health department could run out of doses by Thursday.
2. School reopening plan hits new roadblock
In yet another setback to Newsom’s plan to financially incentivize schools to reopen, education leaders warned in a Tuesday letter that his proposal may actually end up costing schools money because of its requirement that staff and students be tested frequently — and in most cases, weekly, CalMatters’ Ricardo Cano reports. Marian Kim-Phelps, superintendent of San Diego County’s Poway Unified School District, estimated it would cost about $40 million to test all teachers in the county once. By that estimate, she added, the grant funding would only pay for eight rounds of teacher testing — not including students.
- Kim-Phelps: “The math doesn’t even pan out. So, districts would be stuck with this bill on the back end of something that nobody could afford.”
- Newsom spokesman Jesse Melgar: The governor plans to “continue working with legislators and stakeholders to advance this proposal in the coming weeks.”
Nevertheless, the ongoing stalemate between Newsom and school districts suggests that the vast majority of California’s public school students will not return to campus in the spring.
3. Court backlog delays justice
Barbara Franklin, a 91-year-old Riverside County woman suffering from terminal cancer caused by exposure to asbestos, has been waiting since March for a court to hear her case asking for damages from asbestos companies. Franklin is just one of thousands of Californians whose cases have been delayed indefinitely amid the pandemic — and if she dies, her case will die with her, CalMatters’ Robert Lewis reports. Meanwhile, the backlog of cases is growing. Half as many cases, or 1.4 million fewer, were resolved from March through August last year than during the same period in 2019, hindering Californians’ ability to settle lawsuits, get out of jail, fight for child support, battle criminal charges and seek justice.
- Deborah Chang, president of the Consumer Attorneys of California: “Justice has not shut down. Justice has slowed down.”
4. Fires, shutoffs and evacuations
Winds reaching 95 miles per hour whipped through California on Tuesday, sparking a group of small but menacing wildfires that prompted evacuations in Santa Cruz and Santa Clara counties. The high winds also led PG&E to cut power to around 5,500 customers and Southern California Edison to shut off power for nearly 79,000 customers, with potentially another 253,000 to follow. Another 40,000 PG&E customers in the Bay Area lost power when the strong winds knocked over trees and damaged electrical equipment. The winds are expected to die down today.
Also Tuesday, the California Public Utilities Commission sent a letter to Southern California Edison, slamming it for its “tactless” and “deficient” execution of power shutoffs in 2020. The utility is required to appear before the commission on Jan. 26 to discuss possible corrective actions.
CalMatters columnist Dan Walters: With the state government failing so many times to effectively use technology, should it try again with a school data system?
The importance of California’s IBank: Everything IBank has done since its 1994 creation has become more critical during the pandemic — especially supporting small businesses, writes Scott Wu, the bank’s executive director.
Water partnerships: San Joaquin Valley farmers and Southern California cities could improve water security if they jointly developed and managed some water supplies, argues Alvar Escriva-Bou of the Public Policy Institute of California.
Other things worth your time
Sacramento becomes one of the first cities in the country to eliminate single-family zoning. // Sacramento Bee
How Californians are resorting to crowdsourcing to get their COVID-19 vaccine. // Vox
Newsom’s coronavirus briefings often leave more questions than answers, some officials say. // Los Angeles Times
More lawsuits filed against Newsom’s coronavirus restrictions. // CalMatters
California’s ban on high school sports still scheduled to end next week — for now. // Sacramento Bee
Oakland’s neighbors, firefighters see red over plan to deactivate engines, shutter stations. // San Francisco Chronicle
Parts of People’s Park to close as UC Berkeley preps for housing up to 17 stories. // San Francisco Chronicle
UC publishes eye-popping brag sheet ahead of 2021 admissions season. // Los Angeles Times
Monterey Bay power plant now a record-breaking battery project to ward off blackouts. // San Francisco Chronicle
See you tomorrow.
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