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New year, same challenges.

That more or less sums up the landscape state lawmakers will face when they return to Sacramento today for the start of the 2022 legislative session. Once again, a highly transmissible COVID variant is pummeling California, and once again, the state is awash in a multibillion-dollar budget surplus — setting the stage for battles between Gov. Gavin Newsom, legislators and advocacy groups over how the extra money should be split. (We’ll soon know where Newsom stands — he’s required to unveil his budget proposal by Jan. 10.)

And the state Legislature is expected to revisit many of the thorny issues it floated last year — such as single-payer health care, narrowing or eliminating the personal belief exemption in Newsom’s COVID vaccine mandate for K-12 students, and requiring COVID vaccines or weekly tests for all workers. CalMatters’ Sameea Kamal put together a comprehensive preview of key topics to watch for, including increasing abortion access; finding new ways to enforce the state’s strict gun laws; creating state-funded savings accounts for children whose parents died from COVID; and addressing crime, housing and climate change.

An especially fraught fight could emerge between business and labor groups, CalMatters’ Grace Gedye reports. Businesses are trying to avoid shouldering the cost of California’s ballooning unemployment insurance fund debt while struggling to fill staff shortages. Child care providers, who recently secured a minimum 15% pay raise from the state, are pushing for expanded benefits as COVID continues to devastate the industry. And labor groups want to restore emergency COVID paid sick leave — especially in light of the state’s recent move to follow the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s recommendation to slash quarantine periods from 10 to five days.

  • Dr. Nina Wells, a practicing nurse and president of SEIU Local 121RN: “We are opposed to decisions such as this one, which are not backed by science and put the health care workforce and the public at risk; even more concerning is the fact that frontline health care workers simply do not have the support we need.”

Meanwhile, the Legislature itself is in turmoil as lawmakers play a frenzied game of political musical chairs ahead of the 2022 elections — the first to use new maps certified Dec. 27 by the state’s independent redistricting commission. But although individual seats may change hands, Democrats are expected to maintain supermajority control.

On top of all that, hundreds of new California laws went into effect on Jan. 1, including one that raises the minimum wage to $15 an hour for businesses with 26-plus workers and to $14 an hour for companies with fewer employees. The new laws could affect what your neighborhood looks like, how safe you feel, what recourse you have against discrimination — and even how you take out your trash. For more, check out CalMatters’ breakdown of 11 key new laws, each explained in a one-minute video.

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The coronavirus bottom line: As of Saturday, California had 5,191,438 confirmed cases (+1.1% from previous day) and 75,847 deaths (+0.1% from previous day), according to state data. CalMatters is also tracking coronavirus hospitalizations by county.

California has administered 64,980,040 vaccine doses, and 71.2% of eligible Californians are fully vaccinated.

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1. New year, new COVID rules

A rapid antigen COVID-19 test at Canal Alliance in San Rafael on Sept. 25, 2021. Photo by Penni Gladstone for CalMatters

California appears to have settled on a new strategy to combat COVID-19: Instead of instituting lockdowns in response to the omicron variant, which has helped push the statewide testing positivity rate to nearly 16% and prompted a spike in hospitalizations, state and local leaders are mandating stronger safety measures to keep businesses and schools open. Some key examples:

But there’s one key exception when it comes to tougher COVID rules: prisons. Newsom’s administration is continuing to fight a federal judge’s order mandating vaccines for prison guards, saying increased testing is sufficient. But attorneys representing inmates contend that many prison workers are failing to get tested twice a week as required — and note that prisoners must be fully vaccinated by today if they want to have in-person or family visits.

2. Crime, drug crisis stay in spotlight

Image via iStock

Other issues certain to keep dominating California discourse in 2022: rising crime rates and the drug overdose epidemic. Los Angeles closed out 2021 with its highest rate of gun violence in 15 years, notching 392 homicides as of Dec. 29 — the city’s highest total since 2007 and a more than 50% increase from 2019, according to the Los Angeles Times. Oakland, meanwhile, finished the year with 134 homicides, its largest tally since 2006, and has already recorded its first murder of 2022, the Mercury News reports. Despite Newsom pledging to spend more on crime-fighting efforts and other prominent California Democrats ramping up their tough-on-crime rhetoric, some shaken residents are taking matters into their own hands: After four men robbed him at gunpoint, longtime Oakland resident Trevor Lawrence bought a firearm of his own.

  • Lawrence: “When you’ve been through that level of trauma, I feel that’s the only sense of security I have.”

Another jaw-dropping statistic: San Francisco police in 2021 seized 56 pounds of fentanyl from the Tenderloin neighborhood alone — a 500% increase from the amount seized there in 2020. The figure, which police officials described as “unprecedented,” was released a few days after San Francisco supervisors approved Mayor London Breed’s proposal to declare a state of emergency in the Tenderloin to ramp up the city’s response to overdose deaths. “This is a status quo that we absolutely need to challenge and disrupt with everything we have,” Supervisor Matt Haney — who’s running for a state Assembly seattold the San Francisco Chronicle.

3. Snowpack bounces back — for now

The Red Dog ski lift at Palisades Tahoe carries snowboarders and skiers in Olympic Valley on Dec. 24, 2021. Photo by Karl Mondon, Bay Area News Group

More rain and snow is expected to hit the Sierra Nevada and Northern California early this week, the latest in a series of winter storms that’s resulted in the state’s snowpack holding 160% of the water it normally does at this time of year. But that promising figure, which state water officials announced Thursday, doesn’t mean California is done with its punishing drought: “We dug a really deep hole with this drought, and we have a really long way to go to get out of it,” State Climatologist Mike Anderson told the San Francisco Chronicle. Case in point: The vast majority of Central California is still in “extreme drought,” according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. And the storms have brought their own problems: Tens of thousands of PG&E customers in the Sierra Nevada mountains and foothills, many of whom lost power amid last week’s snowfall, could be without it until late this week amid frigid temperatures, according to the Sacramento Bee.

Meanwhile, parts of Southern California are facing their own challenges: Officials closed at least five beaches in Los Angeles and Orange counties after a sewer line in Carson collapsed Thursday, spilling between 6 and 7 million gallons of untreated sewage into the Dominguez Channel, which eventually flows into the Pacific Ocean.

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CalMatters commentary

CalMatters columnist Dan Walters: California’s newly completed redistricting process won’t alter the balance of power.

Addressing the NIMBYism in water wars: Because we have to eat — and we have to farm in order to do so — we must protect California’s agricultural water supplies, argues Chris Scheuring of the California Farm Bureau.

A chance to affirm modern priorities: A conflict over the Kern River offers the state water board an important opportunity: to determine whether historic water rights adequately protect public interests, writes Karrigan Bork, associate director of UC Davis’ Center for Watershed Sciences.

Other things worth your time

California struggling to find use for vacant Governor’s Mansion. // San Francisco Chronicle

The pricey California market got pricier in 2021. // New York Times

Yosemite is forcing homeowners to leave without compensation. // Sacramento Bee

New California law protects CalPERS retirees in pension mistakes. // Sacramento Bee

Catholic schools sue Los Angeles Unified for gutting funding for low-income students. // EdSource

Judge temporarily halts increase in good conduct credits for California inmates. // Sacramento Bee

Report: California police stops down significantly in 2020. // Associated Press

Marijuana: 5 things to watch for in California in 2022. // Orange County Register

California health insurance rules obstruct midwife care for women. // Sacramento Bee

California companies want to grow seaweed to fight climate change, but are held back by environmental regulations. // San Francisco Chronicle

Paper records and steel vaults: Can California water rights enter the digital age? // Los Angeles Times

California is about to witness its biggest change to trash since the ’80s. Hint: It’s all about composting. // San Francisco Chronicle

California continues to face wildfire risks. Insurers think they have an answer. // Politico

New threat to California forests: climate-supercharged beetles. // San Francisco Chronicle

Mater Dei president Walter Jenkins resigns amid hazing scandal. // Orange County Register

News anchor Frank Somerville arrested after DUI wreck. // Mercury News

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...