Facing the triple threat of wildfire season, severe drought and a likely recall election, Gov. Gavin Newsom is undoubtedly hoping that California will be able to avoid rolling blackouts this year after last summer’s heat wave triggered the first outages in nearly two decades.
But while the president of California’s electric grid operator expressed “guarded optimism” Tuesday that blackouts won’t be necessary, he also acknowledged the Golden State could face a power crunch if a heat wave blankets the entire West Coast as it did last summer, contributing to a shortage of both energy and firefighters.
- Elliot Mainzer, president of the California Independent System Operator: “If it’s really hot here and it’s really hot everywhere … things will really tighten up.”
Mainzer’s comments came the same day the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration released new climate averages showing that conditions across the West are getting hotter and drier. Annual temperatures in the region, for example, are 1.25 degrees or more than the 20th century average.
- Noah Diffenbaugh, a Stanford University climate scientist: “So many different types of extremes we know are increasing in frequency or intensity as a result of global warming, even the ones that don’t include temperature directly.”
Case in point: Researchers recently discovered a giant sequoia tree in Sequoia National Park has been burning ever since it caught fire last summer. The blaze was able to endure nine months because of “how dry the park is,” a park official told the San Francisco Chronicle. Though Gov. Gavin Newsom recently declared a regional drought emergency in two counties, a bipartisan group of lawmakers is pushing him to extend it to the whole state.
Energy regulators said Tuesday that California is on track to have 3,500 megawatts more power by August than it had last summer — though some of that energy will come from fossil fuels. After last year’s blackouts, the state decided to keep four controversial gas-powered plants running, although they were supposed to be phased out by the end of 2020.
- Marybel Batjer, president of the California Public Utilities Commission: “We’re not pleased that we still have to use gas and fossil fuels. But our reality is … we’ve got peak and net peak to worry about.”
The coronavirus bottom line: As of Wednesday, California had 3,646,729 confirmed cases (+0.04% from previous day) and 60,862 deaths (+0.2% 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. Court upholds Newsom’s emergency powers
Newsom scored a big win against two Republican lawmakers on Wednesday, when a California appeals court ruled that the governor has the legal right to change, rescind or make state laws — powers typically reserved for the Legislature — during an emergency. The unanimous decision overturns a ruling from November, when a superior court judge sided with Assemblymembers James Gallagher and Kevin Kiley in finding that Newsom didn’t have the authority to issue executive orders that amend or make new state laws. Newsom has issued more than 50 executive orders affecting more than 400 laws amid the pandemic, according to a database maintained by Kiley. And although the executive orders are nullified once Newsom or the Legislature declares an end to the state of emergency, the governor has asked lawmakers to extend his emergency spending authority through June 2022.
- Gallagher and Kiley: “We have said from the beginning that this case will be decided by the California Supreme Court. The issue now squarely presented for the high court is whether the separation of powers still exists in California. We are confident it will uphold this bedrock principle of constitutional government.”
2. Most kids still learning from home
Just 16% of California public school students are receiving full-time in-person instruction despite 87% of those schools having welcomed students back to campus to some degree, according to an EdSource analysis of state data. The numbers underscore the state’s fuzzy definition of “reopening,” frustrating parent advocates pushing for their kids to return to the classroom five days a week. The data also reveals deep disparities: 43% of students in the quartile with the least number of low-income students are in distance learning, compared to 66% in the quartile with the most low-income students.
- Megan Bacigalupi, founder of OpenSchoolsCA: “The data highlights what parents have known all along — a majority of California’s 6 million public school children are still learning remotely. … The rosy picture being painted by Governor Newsom and the Legislature is a false narrative.”
Still, a recent Public Policy Institute of California poll found that 59% of likely voters approve of how Newsom has handled school reopenings. Many families in communities hard-hit by the virus have opted to keep their kids at home even as campuses reopen. But turnout has improved as parents’ confidence in schools’ safety protocols grows: Attendance at Los Angeles Unified elementary schools, for example, shot up from 45% the first week to 79% a week later.
3. Jenner launches campaign on Fox News
Caitlyn Jenner gave her first major interview as a California gubernatorial candidate on Sean Hannity’s Fox News show Wednesday — and the influence of the national Republican Party was clear. Hannity started off by asking about illegal immigration and sanctuary cities before repeatedly pushing Jenner to clarify her stance on whether transgender girls should be allowed to play girls’ sports. Jenner, visibly annoyed, snapped, “Why do you keep asking me that question? … There’s more problems here in the state of California than that.” Jenner then emphasized the need for a stronger electrical grid, better forest management and more business-friendly practices. But Hannity pivoted back to national politics, asking Jenner to compare Presidents Donald Trump and Joe Biden. Although Jenner said she didn’t like some aspects of Trump, she appreciated that he was “a disruptor” and “shook the system up,” whereas “I don’t think I’ve agreed with anything” Biden has done. The interview’s heavy focus on GOP talking points will likely help feed Newsom’s narrative that the recall is a Trumpian effort to oust him from office — and could turn off California voters, the majority of whom voted for Biden in November.
- Newsom’s anti-recall campaign in a fundraising email: “It’s an event that captures it all: A far-right recall attempt paid for by Trump’s donors, run by Trump’s campaign manager, going on Trump’s favorite television station for an event with Trump’s favorite host.”
4. The challenges of pandemic college
As it turns out, attending college in the middle of a pandemic is incredibly logistically complex. Just ask the roughly 160,000 international students enrolled in California schools. A growing number of colleges are requiring students to be vaccinated against COVID-19 — but many campuses will only accept international vaccines approved for emergency use by the World Health Organization, CalMatters’ Mikhail Zinshteyn, Charlotte West and Elena Shao report. That doesn’t include vaccines produced in China, from which 44% of all international students in California come. As a result, some students may have to be revaccinated — despite a lack of data on whether that’s safe. Further complicating matters, visa applications are severely backlogged due to the pandemic — pitting first-time students in a race against time to secure necessary documents before the school year begins in late summer.
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CalMatters columnist Dan Walters: Two California public agencies are trying to offload their embarrassing problems on other entities, rather than owning up and solving them.
Don’t hinder housing: Cities have been and will continue doing their part to address the housing crisis. We respectfully ask state lawmakers to refrain from making it more difficult to get the job done, writes Carolyn Coleman of the League of California Cities.
Reform rooftop solar program: California’s program to promote solar energy is contributing to higher electric bills for vulnerable populations and low-income customers, argues Azizza Davis Goines of the Sacramento Black Chamber of Commerce.
‘New’ Master Plan for Higher Education not the answer: It would “rob Peter to pay Paul” by taking all state funding from the UC system to make up for inadequate funding for the CSU and community college systems, argue Dick Ackerman and Mel Levine, co-chairs of the California Coalition for Public Higher Education.
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Other things worth your time
Lawmakers oppose creating new state agency as unemployment claim backlog grows. // Los Angeles Times
California firefighter union withholds support for Newsom on recall, citing pay cuts. // Sacramento Bee
Kaiser just laid off hundreds of workers. Are more job cuts coming in the health care industry? // East Bay Times
California hospitality workers celebrate right to return to work. // CalMatters
Navy relaxes pandemic restrictions on San Diego sailors. // San Diego Union-Tribune
The Bay Area is fed up with homelessness, new poll shows. // Mercury News
Is San Francisco more conservative than Moscow? Top San Francisco official says yes. // San Francisco Chronicle
What a fight over a noose says about the coming clash of red and blue in California. // Los Angeles Times
Southern California regulators could take aim at warehouse-related pollution. // Los Angeles Times
Why it’s difficult to get detailed information when skiers die at California resorts. // San Francisco Chronicle
Legislation restricting use of ‘California’ on olive oil labels gains momentum. // Olive Oil Times
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