It’s only May, and I’m already having to write about wildfires forcing Californians to evacuate their homes.

Around 1,000 people were displaced from their homes Sunday as the Palisades Fire in Los Angeles County grew to more than 1,300 acres. The blaze, which was 0% contained as of Sunday afternoon, carved a path through dense, old-growth chaparral that hadn’t burned in more than 50 years, the Los Angeles Times reports. As such, it embodied both California’s worsening drought and the grim reality that its fire season is starting earlier and earlier even as its conflagrations get larger and larger.

So far this year, California has seen 1,812 fires that charred nearly 9,400 acres — a massive uptick from the 1,159 fires that burned nearly 1,700 acres during the same time period last year, according to state data. That increase is even more sobering when one considers that last year’s fire season rewrote the record books.

Those tensions are on full display in California as state water regulators prepare to take the rare step of ordering drought restrictions that would force thousands of people, farms, cities and towns to stop taking supplies from the waterways to which they have historic rights. Exacerbating an already fraught situation is the state’s lack of data on water usage, which could complicate its ability to issue appropriate restrictions, the San Francisco Chronicle reports.

Battles for the scarce resource are already ramping up. The city of San Francisco on Friday sued the state for allegedly trying to restrict its Sierra Nevada water supplies. And protests are flaring up along the California-Oregon border after federal officials shut off irrigation water to farmers for the first time in 114 years.


The coronavirus bottom line: As of Sunday, California had 3,664,909 confirmed cases (+0.04% from previous day) and 61,499 deaths (+0.1% from previous day), according to a CalMatters tracker.

California has administered 34,377,697 vaccine doses, and 48.7% of eligible Californians are fully vaccinated.

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. Newsom unveils budget proposal

Gov. Gavin Newsom presents his budget breakdown in Sacramento on May 14, 2021. Photo by Anne Wernikoff, CalMatters

$267.8 billion — that’s the whopping size of the budget proposal Gov. Gavin Newsom formally unveiled on Friday after a week of ambitious announcements that caused some to liken him to a political Santa Claus. Here’s a look at some of the big or otherwise noteworthy proposals announced for the first time on Friday:

But, as CalMatters’ Laurel Rosenhall reports, the budget is far from being set in stone. Lawmakers will spend the next month negotiating details with Newsom while various interest groups lobby for their share of the bounty. Among them: advocates for undocumented residents, who want the state to establish a dedicated relief fund and expand health care coverage to all undocumented Californians; business groups, who want the state to pay down a larger portion of its immense unemployment insurance fund debt; and public health officials, who questioned why Newsom didn’t propose more funding for their agencies.

A closer look at lobbying efforts this year: The California Teachers Association spent $2.85 million lobbying Sacramento during the first quarter of 2021, more than twice as much as the Big Oil groups that ranked as the second and third biggest spenders, a Mercury News analysis shows.

2. Dilemma over racial homeownership gap

Merika Reagan in the living room of her Oakland home. Photo by Anne Wernikoff, CalMatters

Speaking of money, California lawmakers agree that it’s important to close the state’s racial homeownership gap — 63% of non-Hispanic white families own their homes, compared to just 36% of Black families — but disagree on how to do it, CalMatters’ Manuela Tobias reports. Perhaps the most radical idea comes from Senate Democrats, who recently proposed cutting home purchase prices nearly in half by allowing the state to pay for — and own — up to 45% of a house. The state Assembly and Newsom, however, have taken a more traditional approach by proposing increased funding for a state program that provides down payment assistance for qualifying first-time homebuyers. But some advocates and lawmakers say the Legislature won’t be able to adequately address the state’s housing inequalities until it confronts its own power imbalances: Last year, more than 25% of lawmakers were landlords themselves, a majority were homeowners and only one was a tenant.

3. Murky mask rules

A man wearing a mask walks past a boarded up restaurant in the Mission neighborhood of San Francisco on April 7, 2020. Today, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced that 40 out of 58 counties would be moving back into the purple tier. Photo by Anne Wernikoff for CalMatters
A man wearing a mask walks past a boarded-up restaurant in San Francisco on April 7, 2020. Photo by Anne Wernikoff, CalMatters

As California officials consider whether to update the state’s mask rules to align with new federal guidance allowing fully vaccinated people to forgo face coverings, new state data shows that more than two-thirds of Californians have developed antibodies to the COVID-19 virus. The promising figure, announced by state epidemiologist Dr. Erica Pan last week and reported by the Mercury News, suggests that California is approaching herd immunity as vaccinations ramp up. Still, health officials caution that the overall percentage can obscure lower vaccination rates in some pockets of the state where the virus continues to pose a serious threat. The powerful California Nurses Association cited that asymmetry Sunday in urging Newsom and state officials not to relax the state’s mask rules. (Also vehemently opposing looser mask rules: Newsom’s former chief of staff Ann O’Leary.)

However, a guard in California’s High Desert State Prison told CalMatters’ Byrhonda Lyons that lifting the mask mandate could actually improve prison guards’ low vaccination rates.

  • The guard: “It is simply a matter of being told that if you are vaccinated you still have to wear a mask all day. The compliance with vaccinations would go through the roof if this policy changed.”

4. Protests break out over Palestine-Israel conflict

Hundreds of people rally in support of Palestine in San Francisco on May 15, 2021. Photo by Fiona Kelliher, Bay Area News Group

Thousands of Californians gathered over the weekend in support of both Palestine and Israel in response to a deadly wave of violence that has killed at least 197 Palestinians living in the Gaza Strip and at least 10 Israelis. The rallies appeared to be mostly peaceful, although in Fresno a man allegedly pepper-sprayed pro-Palestine protesters and a separate small fight broke out. In Los Angeles, thousands of pro-Palestine protesters were met with groups of pro-Israel protesters, but they were kept separate and no injuries were reported or arrests made. In San Diego, the two sides held rallies on separate nights. A Saturday protest in San Francisco drew hundreds of pro-Palestine protesters, including a man who said he was the son of Holocaust survivors.

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CalMatters commentary

CalMatters columnist Dan Walters: The school year will end with most of California’s 6 million public school students still trying to learn from home.

Why California is still golden: Here are a few data points showing that California continues to be the most vibrant and exciting place in the world to do business, writes Lenny Mendoca, Newsom’s former chief economic and business adviser.

Bonta must use full power of attorney general’s office: He needs to put all police jurisdictions on notice that he will vigorously prosecute anyone with a badge if necessary, argues public policy consultant Jim Gonzalez.

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Other things worth your time

A fraction of San Francisco seniors returned to classrooms. Will it be enough to get $12 million from the state? // San Francisco Chronicle

Fremont parents sue school district over closed schools. // Mercury News

UC settles student lawsuit, agrees not to use SAT, ACT scores in admissions. // San Francisco Chronicle

UC weighs limited tuition increase for fall 2022. // Los Angeles Times

Inside George Gascón’s criminal justice revolution, a debate over what it is to be a crime victim. // Los Angeles Times

Red flag law takes guns from dangerous people. Why aren’t more California counties using it? // San Francisco Chronicle

Two deaths, just months apart: private security guards hired by California public agencies face more scrutiny. // San Diego Union-Tribune

Organized crime drives San Francisco shoplifting, closing 17 Walgreens in five years. // San Francisco Chronicle

California attorney general wants to drop most rape charges against reality TV surgeon from Orange County. // Los Angeles Times

Homeless Oaklanders were tired of the housing crisis. So they built a ‘miracle’ village. // The Guardian

Los Angeles’ quixotic quest to end homelessness. // Vox

Homeless camp backlash has reached a turning point in California. // San Francisco Chronicle

Kardashians learn who’s behind North West’s Instagram — a Sacramento government employee. // Sacramento Bee

These were California’s most popular baby names — with an asterisk. // San Francisco Chronicle

See you tomorrow.

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