Who will take the helm of the state auditor’s office and evaluate Newsom’s administration?
Although California lawmakers don’t return to Sacramento until January, political conflicts are already starting to brew.
The latest partisan battle: choosing the next state auditor, who leads the nonpartisan, independent office that evaluates the performance of Gov. Gavin Newsom’s administration and other government agencies.
The position will open up for the first time in 21 years at the end of this year, when State Auditor Elaine Howle plans to retire. And Republican lawmakers are concerned that Democrats — who exercise supermajority control in the Legislature — will shut them out of the process of recommending her successor to Newsom, according to a Wednesday letter I exclusively obtained.
In the letter to Assemblymember Rudy Salas, the Bakersfield Democrat who leads the committee responsible for sending nominations to Newsom, seven Republican legislators asked that “one Democrat and one Republican from each house” be “assigned to a subcommittee to review applications, vet candidates, and make a recommendation to the full committee.”
- The GOP lawmakers: “Government inefficiency, along with waste, fraud, and abuse, affect all Californians, so it only makes sense that this process should be open, transparent, and enjoy bipartisan cooperation from the start.”
Committee staffers said Thursday that both Democrats and Republicans will be involved in the process of deciding which names are sent on to the governor, but staff for Republicans said there was no statutory guarantee of a bipartisan process.
The political jockeying underscores the power and influence of the office: As I discuss in a sit-down interview with Howle, the state auditor is the only entity under state law that has full access to all records, accounts, correspondence, property and files of any publicly created group.
And Howle’s office has illuminated the pitfalls of California’s pandemic response, uncovering — among other things — rampant fraud at the Employment Development Department, inequitable distribution of federal relief funds among cities and counties, and delays in getting federal rent relief to struggling tenants and homeless Californians.
I talked with Howle about California’s most and least cooperative state agencies, her thoughts on EDD and high speed rail, which areas of the Newsom administration should receive more oversight, and the political pressure she’s faced. For her responses, check out our interview.
- Howle: “The minute anybody in this position agrees to, ‘OK, I’ll wait and issue (an audit) a week later,’ or, ‘OK, I won’t say that,’ the integrity and the credibility of this organization is destroyed, and we can’t afford to let that happen. And I hope my successor understands that that cannot happen.”
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1. Bullet train up in the air
Another political battle gathering force in Sacramento: the fate of California’s bullet train project. Newsom’s administration and lawmakers are hoping to reach an agreement in January on how to spend the remaining $4.2 billion of the $10 billion California voters approved for the project, but it appears that significant gaps still separate their respective visions. In phone conversations from the United Nations climate change conference in Scotland — which is scheduled to end today — top Democratic lawmakers told me:
- Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon, a Lakewood Democrat: “The High-Speed Rail Authority has changed their position and is now lying to Californians. They’re … telling them that the high speed rail system is a system that connects northern Kern County to Madera. That’s not what voters voted for. … We promised them Los Angeles County to the Bay Area.”
- Assemblymember Laura Friedman, a Glendale Democrat and chairperson of the Assembly Transportation Committee: People “need to have an easy connection into the Bay Area. And it wasn’t acceptable to me that the high-speed rail’s business plan made people get on a bus and go a couple of miles to another station. … If they’re going to keep standing by that as their interim business plan, I’m going to keep arguing with them.”
Melissa Figueroa, a spokesperson for the California High-Speed Rail Authority, told me that “the full intent of the project is to connect Los Angeles to San Francisco as voters called for. The project has never been fully funded, and as such we must complete what we have funding for now. … Completing the Merced to Bakersfield section obtains the highest forecast gain in ridership and does so at the lowest increase in cost.”
Learn more about legislators mentioned in this story
State Assembly, District 63 (South Gate)
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State Assembly, District 43 (Burbank)
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Glendale City Councilmember
Further complicating California’s public transit plans, the federal government recently warned that a state pension law could block it from receiving $12 billion in federal funds, including some of its allocation from the $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill President Joe Biden is set to sign Monday. Some money is earmarked for the bullet train, but less than was anticipated.
2. State widens booster eligibility
All California adults who want a COVID-19 booster shot should get one — as long as they received a Johnson & Johnson vaccine at least two months ago or the second dose of a Pfizer or Moderna vaccine at least six months ago, state public health officials instructed local health jurisdictions and providers in a Tuesday letter. The guidelines mark a subtle messaging shift for the state, which had previously adhered to the federal government’s directive that booster shots should be prioritized for the elderly, those with underlying medical conditions, or with high-risk living situations or workplaces.
- Dr. Tomás Aragón, director of the California Department of Public Health: “Allow patients to self-determine their risk of exposure. Do not turn a patient away who is requesting a booster.”
Meanwhile, about 147,000 Californians aged 5 to 11 have received their first dose of the kid-sized Pfizer vaccine since it was cleared for their use last week, according to data updated Thursday by the state public health department.
3. Redistricting winners and losers
Now that the preliminary maps outlining what could be the boundaries of California’s congressional and legislative districts for the next 10 years have finally been approved, here’s a closer look at some potential political ramifications:
- Republican gains? Democrats currently hold 42 of California’s 53 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives, but the draft congressional map creates 39 Democratic-leaning districts, 7 Republican-leaning districts and 6 toss-up districts, according to FiveThirtyEight, a political website.
- Some other possible challenges: Reelection could be an uphill battle for Democratic Reps. John Garamendi of Walnut Grove and Josh Harder of Turlock, as well as GOP Rep. Mike Garcia of northern Los Angeles County, due to proposed changes in their district boundaries. It could also be an uphill battle for Democratic Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard, whose heavily Latino district in Los Angeles would be split, and GOP Rep. Devin Nunes of Tulare, who could find himself in a bluer district.
For the record: An earlier version of this item included outdated references to a previous draft map affecting Democratic Rep. Ami Bera of Elk Grove.
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See you Monday.
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