In summary

State public health officials project that in this California COVID surge, more than 70,000 will be hospitalized at the end of January.

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California is facing what could be its toughest months yet of the COVID-19 pandemic.

That was the Thursday assessment from the California Hospital Association, which warned the state’s hospitals — already on the verge of collapse — are expecting the number of COVID-positive patients to triple by the end of the month and the overall surge in admissions to last until the end of February. The state health department projects that more than 70,000 Californians will be hospitalized at the end of January — a massive uptick from last winter’s peak of 54,000, CalMatters’ Kristen Hwang reports.

Schools are also struggling to stay open — and many could turn to remote learning in the next few weeks as staff shortages soar, Troy Flint of the California School Boards Association told Politico.

Nine Oakland schools cancelled instruction Thursday after teachers held their second sickout in less than a week, and students are threatening their own sickout next week unless the district ramps up safety protocols. Meanwhile, with nearly a third of kids 12 and older still not fully vaccinated, the district will likely delay enforcement of its student vaccine mandate from Jan. 31 to August.

Also shuttered: Schools in Alpine County, after the public health officer on Tuesday declared a local health emergency due to spiking COVID cases and low vaccination rates. A Sutter County campus is closing today amid surging infection rates. Palo Alto Unified managed to stave off closures this week by drafting nearly 800 parent volunteers; on Thursday, an advocacy group called the San Francisco Parent Coalition announced that 58 parents and community members plan to apply as substitute teachers to help plug their district’s staff shortage.

Adding to California’s coronavirus challenges, many residents are shelling out hundreds of dollars to pay for COVID tests — and aren’t always reimbursed — despite state and federal laws requiring them to be free or covered by health insurance, CalMatters’ Ana B. Ibarra reports.

And, starting today, California’s workplace safety agency, Cal/OSHA, is tightening COVID rules for businesses. CalMatters’ Grace Gedye breaks down changes around testing, quarantine and masking — including a new rule that requires workers to wear respirators, surgical masks or face coverings made with fabric thick enough to prevent light from passing through.

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The coronavirus bottom line: As of Wednesday, California had 6,296,907 confirmed cases (+1.7% from previous day) and 76,804 deaths (+0.2% from previous day), according to state data. CalMatters is also tracking coronavirus hospitalizations by county.

California has administered 66,974,365 vaccine doses, and 72% of eligible Californians are fully vaccinated.

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1. Newsom rejects Sirhan parole

Gov. Gavin Newsom addressed the media during a press conference where he unveiled his budget proposal for 2022-23 in Sacramento on Jan. 10, 2022. Photo by Miguel Gutierrez Jr./CalMatters
Gov. Gavin Newsom at a press conference in Sacramento on Jan. 10, 2022. Photo by Miguel Gutierrez Jr., CalMatters

Gov. Gavin Newsom on Thursday rejected parole for Sirhan Sirhan, 77, who was convicted in 1968 of assassinating Robert F. Kennedy, one of the governor’s personal heroes. The move was not a surprise — Newsom had hinted for months that he was inclined to reverse a state panel’s recommendation to release Sirhan from prison — but he nevertheless took pains to justify his decision in a Los Angeles Times op-ed and KTVU television interview.

  • Newsom: “It was not done lightly. … I personally went and I reviewed the archives and saw the gun and read through the diaries of Sirhan and looked at all the evidence in this case. We took this to a whole another level of consideration.”

In denying Sirhan parole, Newsom determined that he “currently poses an unreasonable threat to public safety” and “lacks the insight that would prevent him from making the same types of dangerous decisions he made in the past.” Meanwhile, the governor on Thursday granted 24 pardons, 18 commutations and 5 reprieves for other inmates.

2. Newsom’s budget sparks concerns

The governor’s podium before he unveiled his budget proposal for 2022-23 in Sacramento on Jan. 10, 2022. Photo by Miguel Gutierrez Jr., CalMatters

From CalMatters Capitol reporter Alexei Koseff: Newsom’s record-breaking budget proposal was met with some caution on Thursday, when the Legislature’s nonpartisan fiscal advisor warned that his spending plan includes more proposals than districts and departments — many of which are still figuring out how to use funds from last year’s massive surplus — might be able to effectively implement. The Legislative Analyst’s Office suggested that lawmakers instead consider directing more of the surplus into the state’s reserve accounts, which hold more money than ever before but haven’t kept up with the growth in general fund spending — a potential risk in another economic downturn.

Newsom alluded to those concerns on Monday, but said his hands were tied by a 2014 ballot measure that annually directs a portion of taxes into a rainy-day fund until it reaches 10% of general fund revenue. After hitting that limit — as would be the case in this budget — any additional money must be spent on infrastructure.

  • Newsom: “I know many people believe that our reserves are not as high as they should be. I agree with you. But I hope they also would agree with me that in order to get those reserves where they need to go, we need a constitutional amendment to reform our reserve system.”

But that’s not exactly true. Once the rainy-day fund reaches the 10% cap, the state can still make additional optional deposits in the account. It remains to be seen whether Newsom and lawmakers have any desire to do so — let alone try to change the law to require even higher reserves — when there are so many billions of dollars to hand out.

3. Californians rally across state

State Sen. Steve Bradford gathers with supporters of equity cannabis tax reform during a rally at the State Capitol on Jan. 13, 2021. Photo by Rahul Lal for CalMatters
State Sen. Steve Bradford gathers with supporters of equity cannabis tax reform during a rally at the state Capitol on Jan. 13, 2021. Photo by Rahul Lal for CalMatters

Californians of all stripes — including state lawmakers, labor leaders, business owners and concerned citizens — called for state action Thursday on a variety of fronts:

  • Cannabis: Democratic State Sen. Steven Bradford of Gardena and Assemblymember Mia Bonta of Oakland rallied with small growers and business owners outside the Capitol building, calling on the state to repeal its marijuana cultivation tax and exempt companies launched through “social equity” programs from the cannabis excise tax. “I traveled the four hours from my farm to bring a message: that the unfair taxation spells the end of the dream for so many small farms and small businesses,” said Casey O’Neill of Happy Day Farms in Mendocino County. (The rally ended with a bunch of people smoking weed on the Capitol steps, CalMatters’ Alexei Koseff reports.) Indeed, some cannabis entrepreneurs plan to stage a “tax revolt” if California doesn’t reform its tax structure by July; Newsom said Monday that he wants to work with state lawmakers on changes. Meanwhile, a Thursday investigation from the Los Angeles Times found that tens of thousands of Californians still have marijuana convictions — hampering their ability to get housing and employment — despite a 2018 law intended to clear those records.
  • Paid sick leave: Democratic state Sen. Dave Cortese of Campbell and Assemblymember Wendy Carrillo of Los Angeles joined organized labor in urging the state to renew extra paid sick leave for COVID-19 — something Newsom has also called for. The powerful California Labor Federation made clear that it wants a one-year extension of the program, which would be three months longer than it lasted in 2021. “We have a worker shortage right now. Why would people re-enter the workforce if they’re told that if they contract COVID-19 … they’re not going to be paid for the time off?” Cortese said.
  • Solar energy: Thousands of solar workers, climate activists and other community members held marches in Los Angeles and San Francisco to protest state regulators’ controversial proposal to reform a wildly successful rooftop solar incentive program. Newsom has also said the blueprint needs changes.

Learn more about legislators mentioned in this story

Dave Cortese

Dave Cortese

State Senate, District 15 (Campbell)

Dave Cortese

State Senate, District 15 (Campbell)

How he voted 2021-2022
Liberal Conservative
District 15 Demographics

Voter Registration

Dem 51%
GOP 18%
No party 26%
Campaign Contributions

Sen. Dave Cortese has taken at least $735,000 from the Labor sector since he was elected to the legislature. That represents 27% of his total campaign contributions.

4. Lawmaker exodus continues

Sen. Andreas Borgeas on the senate floor during the AB 1482 vote, a bill that would instate a state-wide rent cap on Sept. 10, 2019. Photo by Anne Wernikoff for CalMatters
State Sen. Andreas Borgeas on Sept. 10, 2019. Photo by Anne Wernikoff for CalMatters

The “Great Resignation” of state lawmakers continues — and at such a pace that it’s become CalMatters political reporter Ben Christopher’s part-time job to update his story about legislators retiring, running for higher office or ruling out re-election campaigns. The latest: Assemblymember Jordan Cunningham, a San Luis Obispo Republican, said Thursday he won’t seek reelection. That followed the double whammy of state Sen. Andreas Borgeas, a Fresno Republican, revealing Tuesday he won’t seek another term, and Los Angeles Democratic state Sen. Sydney Kamlager’s Wednesday announcement that she’s running for Congress. That means California’s 120-member Legislature will include at least 25 new lawmakers after the November election — and more changes are likely, as candidates have until mid-March to declare their plans.

Meanwhile, Rep. David Valadao — the only one of California’s 11 congressional Republicans who voted to impeach former President Donald Trump — announced Wednesday that he plans to run for reelection in a newly redrawn, and increasingly Democratic, congressional district. But Valadao may find himself in no-man’s-land: Too Democratic for his Central Valley district’s Republicans and too Republican for its Democrats, suggests a Mercury News dispatch from the town of Hanford.

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CalMatters commentary

Newsom should deliver on single-payer health care: Single-payer systems in economically advanced capitalist countries like ours produce better health at much lower costs, argues Harry Snyder, a lecturer at the UC Berkeley School of Public Health.

Learning from LAUSD: Large school districts experiencing COVID-related closures could learn a lot from the Los Angeles Unified School District and United Teachers Los Angeles, writes Glenn Sacks, an LAUSD teacher.

Other things worth your time

Tech companies spend millions on California political gifts. // SFGATE

California will distribute COVID-19 tests to child care providers by the end of January, but many aren’t waiting. // LAist

Blood shortage reaches crisis levels at San Diego County hospitals. // San Diego Union-Tribune

California unemployment claims soar to three-month high. // Mercury News

San Francisco expects 15% of office workers to stay remote permanently. // San Francisco Chronicle

Big Bear feels the strain of busy season amid omicron surge. // Los Angeles Times

Progressive Working Families Party lands in California, and is targeting moderate Democrats. // San Francisco Chronicle

Why this liberal California mayor doesn’t want a lecture from progressives. // New York Times

A month after Mayor Breed’s tough talk on the Tenderloin, police staffing and arrests remain flat. // San Francisco Chronicle

San Francisco school board recalls are tearing Democrats apart. // Washington Post

Bill to punish fentanyl dealers shot down by California lawmakers. // KCRA

After a pandemic pause, Oakland ramped up homeless camp closures again. // Oaklandside

COVID again delays crucial homeless census in the Bay Area. // Mercury News

Homeless tiny homes village experiment in Oakland hits a snag. // Mercury News

Navient settlement cancels student loan debt for thousands, including in California. // Sacramento Bee

State panel moves to discipline OC judge for allegedly hiding evidence as a prosecutor. // Orange County Register

PG&E can be held responsible for contamination from former gas plant, judge rules. // San Francisco Chronicle

Environmentalists rally to try to save Diablo Canyon nuclear plant. // Grist

See you Tuesday.

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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...