In summary

Gov. Gavin Newsom is proposing a $2.7 billion COVID relief package, including $1.4 billion in emergency spending, largely for testing.

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Today, Gov. Gavin Newsom is set to unveil his budget proposal for the fiscal year starting in July — but, in a sign that California is scrambling to keep up with the omicron variant, he wants state lawmakers to immediately approve $1.4 billion in emergency COVID funding.

The emergency request is part of a $2.7 billion coronavirus response package that Newsom’s administration previewed Saturday. It also calls for legislation to revive supplemental paid sick leave related to COVID-19, potentially modeled on a program that expired last year against the wishes of organized labor.

Here’s a closer look at the $2.7 billion proposal, which the administration expects to largely be reimbursed by the federal government:

  • $1.2 billion to bolster testing, including expanding clinic hours and capacity and sending rapid tests to local health departments and schools. (However, as of Friday, 17 of 58 counties still had not received rapid tests that Newsom on Dec. 22 promised would be made available to California’s 6 million public school students before they returned to campus from winter break.)
  • $614 million to boost staffing at vaccination sites and health care facilities, which are so short on workers that the California Department of Public Health is evaluating whether to order hospitals to suspend elective surgeries in cases in which patients wouldn’t be immediately harmed, CalMatters’ Barbara Feder Ostrov reports.
  • $583 million to continue vaccine education campaigns, including “combating misinformation” in partnership with 250 ethnic media outlets.
  • $200 million to increase staffing and tech capacity at state emergency response and public health agencies.
  • $110 million to expand contact tracing and offer vaccines, testing, and isolation and quarantine services to migrants at the Mexico border.

The package provides the latest glimpse into Newsom’s priorities for spending what analysts estimate could be a $31 billion surplus. The governor is also expected to propose spending billions of additional dollars on drought prevention, wildfire suppression and rural workforce development programs, the Sacramento Bee reported Sunday night. And he’s hinted at plans to funnel money into stimulus checks, crime-fighting efforts, dyslexia screenings and early education, cleaning homeless encampments and infrastructure.

But three key actions his administration took on Friday and over the weekend suggest that COVID will likely dominate financial and political debates at the Capitol — even as Republican lawmakers begged Newsom to declare a special legislative session devoted to homelessness.

  • Newsom deployed more than 200 members of the California National Guard to increase capacity at 50 state-funded COVID testing sites, with another deployment scheduled this week.
  • He signed an executive order that generally prohibits sellers from raising prices on COVID at-home test kits by more than 10%. (Meanwhile, counties from San Francisco to San Diego are warning about a proliferation in fake COVID testing sites.)
  • The state Department of Public Health issued controversial guidance allowing asymptomatic COVID-positive or exposed workers at hospitals and skilled nursing facilities to immediately return to work without isolation or additional testing — another indication of critically low staffing levels. Health care workers immediately decried the move.

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The coronavirus bottom line: As of Saturday, California had 5,634,357 confirmed cases (+1.9% from previous day) and 76,341 deaths (+0.4% from previous day), according to state data. CalMatters is also tracking coronavirus hospitalizations by county.

California has administered 66,277,054 vaccine doses, and 71.7% of eligible Californians are fully vaccinated.

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1. State unveils pandemic learning data

Mario Ramirez Garcia, 10, does a spelling activity during remote learning in the bedroom he shares in Oakland with his sister on April 23, 2021. Photo by Anne Wernikoff, CalMatters
Mario Ramirez Garcia, 10, does a spelling activity during distance learning in his Oakland home on April 23, 2021. Photo by Anne Wernikoff, CalMatters

California’s most comprehensive picture to date of the pandemic’s impact on K-12 education emerged Friday, when the state Department of Education released student performance data for the 2020-21 school year, which many kids spent almost entirely in distance learning. CalMatters education reporter Joe Hong noted these key takeaways:

  • Less than 25% of students took state standardized tests in 2021 — though that’s an improvement from 2020, when the tests were cancelled altogether. Of the students who participated, just 49% met or exceeded English standards, a number that dropped to 34% in math. (In 2019, about 51% of students met English standards and 40% met math standards.)
  • Graduation rates decreased to 83.6% from 84.2% the previous year — and Black students suffered the largest drop, falling more than 4 percentage points to 72.5%. Meanwhile, chronic absenteeism rose from 12% to 14%.
  • The data also suggest that younger students struggled with remote learning much more than older students.
  • Finally, experts say the data may underestimate learning loss among vulnerable populations, since students who were chronically absent or lacked stable internet access likely didn’t take standardized tests.

For many education leaders, the data reinforced the importance of in-person learning — just as some schools started shutting down again. Hayward Unified School District said Friday that it will hold classes remotely for a week starting today amid a surge in omicron cases, while 12 Oakland schools closed Friday when 500 teachers held a sickout to call for enhanced safety measures. On Saturday, the California Teachers Association reiterated its commitment to in-person learning while also calling on the state to increase protections and restore COVID supplemental paid sick leave.

2. ‘Great Resignation’ hits Legislature

Lorena Gonzalez, a San Diego Democrat, after she announced her resignation from the state Assembly on Jan. 3, 2022. Photo by Miguel Gutierrez Jr., CalMatters

If you like action sports, try keeping up with the California Legislature during an election year spiced up by newly redrawn districts and looming term limits. The high-octane mix has resulted in a degree of churn not seen in at least seven years, with 14 assemblymembers and state senators so far calling it quits or deciding not to seek reelection in November — on top of seven senators hitting their term limits and an assemblymember hoping to jump to the state Senate, CalMatters’ Ben Christopher reports. The frenzied game of musical chairs — which is far from over — will likely alter the policies coming out of Sacramento: After the November election, the 120-member Legislature will usher in at least 21 new lawmakers. But the uncertainty caused by so many moving parts could affect legislators’ decisions even before then, said Democratic Assemblymember Patrick O’Donnell of Long Beach, who announced last week he won’t seek reelection.

  • O’Donnell: It’s “gonna have an impact on policy. People are probably going to be more cautious of the big bills that seek to do Herculean changes.”

Another corollary of high turnover: more special elections. California already has five special elections on the books for February and April to fill four vacant state Assembly seats and former Rep. Devin Nunes’ spot in Congress.

3. Will CA shake up the fast food industry?

Workers protest for better working conditions at a Burger King in San Diego on Nov. 9, 2021. Photo by Ariana Drehsler for CalMatters

The turnover could also affect organized labor, which lost its biggest legislative ally last week when Democratic Assemblymember Lorena Gonzalez of San Diego resigned to take over the California Labor Federation. But a controversial bill Gonzalez introduced last year — which narrowly failed to pass the state Assembly — is expected to be revived this year. The proposal would overhaul the fast-food industry by establishing a state-appointed council to set industry-wide standards for wages and work conditions — and hold corporate franchisors, not just local franchise owners, responsible for compliance, Jackie Botts and Jesse Bedayn report for CalMatters’ California Divide project. Yet Gonzalez herself says that an employee-led, worksite-by-worksite approach would be preferable to the state government getting involved in private negotiations.

  • Gonzalez: “Maybe an individual fast food franchisee or restaurant says, ‘You know what, I’d rather have a conversation with my workers in my workplace, allow them if they so want to unionize, and provide them not what these people at the state level are bargaining for but what the workers in my workplace actually want.’ That would be a great solution.”

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CalMatters commentary

CalMatters columnist Dan Walters: Once again, California’s state auditor has found failures in government efforts to implement high-tech systems.

Budget surplus should strengthen families: Investing in services that promote child development, maternal health and family stability is crucial to California’s future, argues Kim Belshé, executive director of First 5 LA.

Reform California’s prescription drug rebate system: State lawmakers should pass Assembly Bill 933 to address the cost barriers that frequently prevent people from getting the care they need, writes David Lloyd of The Kennedy Forum.

Other things worth your time

COVID concerns fueled absences among some California lawmakers. // San Francisco Chronicle

Visits to California prisons suspended over COVID-19 spike. // Sacramento Bee

COVID-19 outbreak in Wasco State Prison suspends inmate intake. // Bakersfield Californian

Pregnant with COVID, California woman survived a nightmare. // Mercury News

California education issues to watch in 2022 — and predictions of what will happen. // EdSource

San Diego Unified says it won’t currently require COVID-19 vaccine for sports, extracurriculars. // San Diego Union-Tribune

Cal Poly is isolating COVID-positive students in off-campus hotels. // Mustang News

State Medical Board seeks reforms to discipline bad doctors. // Los Angeles Times

Record number of homeless people died in Sacramento in 2021. // Sacramento Bee

Hundreds died in Los Angeles traffic crashes in 2021. Is Vision Zero a failure? // Los Angeles Times

Silicon Valley office rents boom to record highs amid rebound. // Mercury News

Quiet awards season has Hollywood uneasy. // New York Times

GM recognizes California’s authority to set vehicle emissions rules. // Reuters

Recent rains provide chance to use ‘fire to fight fire’ with prescribed burns in backcountry. // San Diego Union-Tribune

More than 3,000 Sierra Nevada PG&E customers still without power two weeks after storm. // Sacramento Bee

Dog lost in wildfire rescued in snowy California mountains. // Associated Press

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...