Good morning, California. It’s Wednesday, September 29.
Another big appointment for Newsom
California’s top utility regulator is resigning from Gov. Gavin Newsom’s administration as the state struggles to rein in massive wildfires and ensure its electrical grid keeps power flowing to residents’ homes.
Marybel Batjer, president of the California Public Utilities Commission, announced Tuesday that she will leave her post at the end of December — a little more than two years after Newsom appointed her to the role and more than five years before her term ends. She is the latest top official to depart Newsom’s administration: Since August 2020, the governor has lost his director of public health, the head of the state prison system, the director of the state unemployment department, the leader of the state’s Department of General Services, his communications director (twice), his chief of staff and three top aides.
Batjer’s abrupt exit raises questions about how California plans to navigate its relationship with PG&E as the state grapples with what looks like another record-breaking fire season. A years-long ABC 10 investigation found Batjer played a key role in “the Newsom administration’s complex plan to help PG&E avoid the financial consequences of past and future wildfires.” Although the Public Utilities Commission in April strengthened oversight of the beleaguered utility, it also allowed its safety certificate to remain in place — a move critics described as “license to burn.”
PG&E, which already has 91 felony convictions on its record, saw another 31 criminal charges filed against it Friday for its role in sparking last year’s deadly Zogg Fire. It’s also under investigation for potentially starting this year’s Dixie Fire, the second-largest blaze in state history that leveled the historic town of Greenville. Meanwhile, PG&E has asked the Public Utilities Commission to approve two rate hikes that could result in the average customer’s monthly bill jumping nearly 5%.
The commission is also one of three state agencies responsible for last year’s rolling blackouts, and it’s a key player in Newsom’s new plan to offer cash for energy conservation to help keep California’s lights on.
Batjer’s announcement came as gusty winds swept across much of California, threatening to spread the Fawn Fire in Shasta County and the blazes menacing Sequoia National Park.
It also came the same day as a blockbuster report from NPR’s California Newsroom and Stanford University’s Environmental Change and Human Outcomes Lab, which found that the five cities nationwide with the largest increase in smoky days from 2009-13 to 2016-20 were in California. The state has also seen a sizable uptick in hospitalizations for respiratory and cardiac conditions and prescriptions for asthma medication.
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The coronavirus bottom line: As of Monday, California had 4,476,388 confirmed cases (+0.1% from previous day) and 68,387 deaths (+0.04% from previous day), according to state data. CalMatters is also tracking coronavirus hospitalizations by county.
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Other stories you should know
1. Tougher vaccine mandates coming to CA
Workers in adult and senior care facilities and those employed in in-home direct care settings must be fully vaccinated by Nov. 30, the state Department of Public Health ordered Tuesday — the latest example of state and local governments turning to tougher COVID restrictions to bring the pandemic to a close. Also Tuesday, Newsom said the state is “in discussions with 1,050 school districts” about a vaccine mandate for eligible students — a departure from two weeks ago, when he said “nothing (is) on the table” in regard to school vaccine mandates. Meanwhile, San Diego Unified School District on Tuesday became the latest to require vaccines for staff and eligible students — though only for kids 16 and older. And the Los Angeles City Council will today consider a proposal that would require adults to show proof of vaccination to enter nearly any indoor establishment, including restaurants, coffee shops, shopping centers, movie theaters, hair and nail salons, tattoo shops and museums. San Francisco, which is considering easing its indoor mask mandate in certain settings, could be an exception to the rule of tougher requirements.
Meanwhile, Newsom spokeswoman Erin Mellon told my colleague Laurel Rosenhall that the governor’s two children who recently tested positive for COVID-19 have recovered from their mild symptoms and are back in school. Newsom’s eldest child just turned 12 and is looking forward to getting vaccinated, Mellon said.
2. Newsom signs affordable housing bills
Standing in front of an affordable housing development in Oakland, Newsom on Tuesday signed into law a package of 27 bills intended to boost affordable housing across the state, hold local governments accountable for building their fair share of units and rectify housing discrimination. The package follows four ambitious housing bills signed earlier this month and a whopping $22 billion investment that the governor’s office says will create more than 84,000 new affordable homes for Californians, including 44,000 units and treatment beds for people exiting homelessness.
Here’s a look at what some of the new laws mean for California, a state with housing costs so high the median price of a single-family home hit $827,940 in August and where cities such as Fresno have catapulted onto the list of the nation’s hottest housing markets:
- The state will launch a Housing Accountability Unit to ensure local governments meet housing production goals.
- The state will limit local governments’ ability to restrict housing construction based on lot size.
- The state will help local governments expedite housing construction on their surplus land.
- The state will incentivize local governments to convert existing market-rate units into moderate-income housing for working families.
- The state will offer tax credits to affordable housing developers building intergenerational housing for the elderly and foster youth.
Newsom also signed a stack of miscellaneous bills Tuesday and vetoed three others, including one that would have boosted family leave payments. “This bill would create significant new costs … and would result in higher disability contributions paid by employees,” Newsom wrote in his veto message.
3. Addressing California’s drug crisis
The other public health crisis raging in California: the drug epidemic. On Tuesday, San Francisco Mayor London Breed and state Sen. Scott Wiener urged Newsom to sign a bill on his desk that would make California the first state in the nation to pay drug addicts to stay sober. San Francisco is particularly desperate for solutions: The city saw nearly three times as many people die last year from a fentanyl overdose than from COVID-19. Fentanyl, a synthetic opioid 50 to 100 times more powerful than morphine, has killed an average of 57 San Franciscans per month this year — barely down from an average of 59 per month last year, despite the city pouring $13.2 million into overdose prevention programs, the San Francisco Chronicle reports. (The city’s monthly average of fentanyl deaths was 37 in 2019 and 22 in 2018.)
But fentanyl isn’t the strongest drug out there: Riverside police recently seized from the home of two Southern California residents more than 46 pounds of carfentanil, a synthetic opioid 100 times more powerful than fentanyl. Officials said it was enough to kill more than 50 million people — a population larger than the state of California.
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A smoother path for transfer students: Newsom should sign a bill that would allow more community college students to transfer to the California State University system, argue CSU Chancellor Joseph Castro and Isaac Alferos, president of the California State Student Association.
A permanent solution for online government meetings: Newsom and lawmakers must act quickly to prevent California from losing its progress toward a more inclusive, tech-savvy future, write Pedro Navo and Bill Emmerson of the Little Hoover Commission.
Other things worth your time
LAUSD enrollment drops by 30,000 students amid COVID-19, the steepest decline in years. // Los Angeles Times
California treasurer sued for harassment often shared hotel rooms with staff, records show. // Sacramento Bee
131 federal judges — including some in California — broke law by hearing cases where they had a financial interest. // Wall Street Journal
Expert warnings on California recall election reform. // Los Angeles Times
Who needs Sacramento or GOP? Recall boss Heatlie plots burst of ballot drives. // Times of San Diego
City legislation would allow businesses to hire sheriff’s deputies as security guards in effort to combat shoplifting. // San Francisco Chronicle
LAPD protest dispersal orders soar, with few records justifying actions. // Los Angeles Times
LAPD proposes $18.5 million plan to impose reforms after bungled 2020 protest response. // Orange County Register
California recycling firm to pay $34 million in bottle and can scam. // Associated Press
San Diego raises fees on industrial polluters for first time since 1984. // San Diego Union-Tribune
SoCalGas agrees to $1.8 billion settlement in 2015 gas leak. // Los Angeles Times
San Manuel tribe discusses possible land deal with San Bernardino National Forest. // Desert Sun
California city apologizes for 1887 Chinatown destruction. // Associated Press
See you tomorrow.
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