Just when Gov. Gavin Newsom sheds one political headache, another emerges.
A controversial bill that would have banned fracking and other oil extraction methods and prevented gas wells from operating near homes, schools and health care facilities died in the state Legislature on Tuesday — freeing the governor from having to take a stance on the lightning-rod issue ahead of an almost-certain recall election. Although lawmakers had introduced the bill at Newsom’s behest, their proposal was much more ambitious than what he’d asked for. Newsom refused to disclose his position on the bill, likely to avoid alienating labor unions representing oil and gas workers on one side and environmental groups on the other.
Though the bill could still be amended and revived, its failure in a nine-member Democratic-majority committee suggests it won’t be heading to the governor’s desk anytime soon. But Newsom is already tangled in another politically thorny environmental battle as drought looms on the horizon: Who should be prioritized for the state’s scarce water?
The governor evaded questions as to whether he would declare a drought emergency — which would allow him to mandate conservation and relax environmental restrictions on some water sources to divert more to farmers — at a Tuesday press conference at which he signed a $536 million wildfire prevention bill. Last week, a bipartisan group of Central Valley lawmakers called on Newsom to declare an emergency to ensure the agricultural industry receives adequate water. Environmental advocates and tribal members are urging Newsom not to prioritize ag at the expense of endangered species and wetlands.
- Newsom on Tuesday: “We are mindful of the urgency as it relates to anxiety now entering the second year of drought conditions. And we will be very, very forthright if we make a determination of drought emergency. But again, that has to come with certain benefits that otherwise couldn’t be accrued without it.”
Tensions could heighten later this week, when the federal government is expected to announce allocations from the federally owned Klamath Project along the California-Oregon border, where farmers and Indigenous tribes are competing for scarce water resources.
- Mike Belchik, a senior water policy analyst for the Yurok Tribe in Northern California: “It’s just impossible for them to make everyone happy. There’s just not enough water.”
The coronavirus bottom line: As of Tuesday, California had 3,604,395 confirmed cases (+0% from previous day) and 59,258 deaths (+0% from previous day), according to a CalMatters tracker.
Plus: CalMatters regularly updates this pandemic timeline tracking the state’s daily actions. We’re also tracking the state’s coronavirus hospitalizations by county and lawsuits against COVID-19 restrictions.
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1. J&J vaccine on hold
California on Tuesday temporarily halted use of the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine, but Newsom emphasized the stoppage won’t “materially affect” the state’s ability to vaccinate everyone who wants a dose or to fully reopen the economy on June 15. The federal government recommended states pause their use of the J&J vaccine “out of an abundance of caution” following reports of severe but rare blood clots in six women out of 6.8 million recipients nationwide. Newsom, who received the J&J vaccine earlier this month, stressed that the shot is “extraordinarily safe,” pointing out “less than one in a million incidences … were deemed severe.”
The J&J shots represent only about 4% of the state’s weekly vaccine allocation, a percentage that was already slated to shrink this week after a manufacturing mixup ruined 15 million doses. But the supply decline comes at an especially inopportune moment: California on Thursday is throwing open vaccine eligibility to everyone 16 and older. And the state is already battling vaccine hesitancy, which could increase as a result of the J&J doses being put on hold.
2. Politicians unpunished for unpaid fines
California politicians, judges, lobbyists and campaign donors owe the state more than $2 million for late campaign reports, according to the secretary of state’s office. But the office has allowed some of the largest fines to go unpaid for more than a decade without any consequences for those who owe the money — raising questions as to whether California is effectively enforcing its campaign finance law meant to promote transparency and prevent corruption, CalMatters’ Laurel Rosenhall reports. The lax enforcement contrasts sharply with the punishment ordinary Californians face for neglecting to pay a traffic ticket, ranging from increasingly higher fines to misdemeanor charges.
- Lobbyist Natasha Minsker: “Once you get a fine in the criminal justice system, it compounds and increases and it easily takes over your life if you are low-income. The fact that these fines can go unpaid without any consequence, it’s definitely an illustration of privilege.”
As Laurel points out, legislators write laws and judges enforce them, so they have an especially high duty to abide by them. But 26 state lawmakers and 21 superior court judges have unpaid fines — some in the tens of thousands of dollars. Check out Laurel’s report to see who they are.
3. State short on infrastructure money
California’s program to repair crumbling roads and highways is facing a $6.1 billion annual shortfall, according to figures in a recent state transportation department report unearthed by The Sacramento Bee. The staggering news comes less than three years after voters approved a ballot measure to preserve higher gas taxes and vehicle fees passed by the state Legislature, which were projected to raise $5.4 billion for infrastructure repairs annually. But although Californians pay the highest gas taxes in the country, available funding only covers 45% of needed repairs, according to the state transportation department. The pandemic appears to have contributed to the revenue shortfall by resulting in fewer drivers on the road, but the massive deficit could revive heated debate over the gas tax. State Sen. Josh Newman, a Fullerton Democrat, was recalled in 2018 for voting to approve the gas tax, though he won the seat back in 2020. (For more, see his commentary below.)
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CalMatters columnist Dan Walters: California’s looming drought adds another factor in the recall campaign aimed at Newsom.
Republicans’ only victory strategy: Instead of winning elections the old-fashioned way — by getting more votes in a regularly timed statewide election — the California GOP pursues recall campaigns, argues state Sen. Josh Newman, a Fullerton Democrat.
A new approach to water security: California’s snowpack surveys are a jarring reminder of how little technological innovation has occurred in the state’s water sector, argue Danielle Blacet of the California Municipal Utilities Association and Adrian Covert of the Bay Area Council.
Other things worth your time
California proposal would let recall targets see who signed petition. // Associated Press
When LAUSD reopens schools, K-8 students will spend more time in child care than class. // Los Angeles Times
Orange County to test digital COVID-19 vaccine passport program. // ABC7 Los Angeles
Newsom donates contribution from nursing home owner to charity, after investigaton. // LAist
Northern California prison to close, cutting 1,000 jobs from rural community. // Sacramento Bee
Every major Bay Area city has seen home values go up in the pandemic. Except for one. // San Francisco Chronicle
Los Angeles nears deal to build shelters, clear homeless encampments. // Los Angeles Times
California consumer confidence back to pre-pandemic levels. // Orange County Register
Los Angeles County Sheriff ready to call National Guard in case of unrest over Minnesota shooting. // Los Angeles Times
Paul Flores arrested in 1996 disappearance of Cal Poly SLO student Kristin Smart. // Los Angeles Times
How mud could help protect San Francisco from sea level rise. // Mercury News
Texas froze and California burned. To insurers, they look similar. // New York Times
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