In summary

A group of Democratic legislators on Thursday unveiled a package of bills to create a universal health care program funded by new taxes.

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To implement single-payer health care, or not to implement single-payer health care?

That’s the question facing state lawmakers after a group of Democratic legislators on Thursday unveiled a package of bills to create a universal health care program called CalCare. The proposal has already earned better reception than it did last year, when it was tabled without a hearing after lawmakers raised concerns about its lack of a funding source.

Democratic Assemblymember Jim Wood of Santa Rosa said Thursday that he will vote to move the bill forward next week when it’s scheduled to be considered by the Assembly Health Committee, which he leads.

  • Wood: “I continue to feel the frustration, desperation, and quite frankly, the anger that many Californians experience in their efforts to access quality and affordable health care. … Something’s got to give, so next Tuesday, I’ll be voting for change.”

Learn more about legislators mentioned in this story

Jim Wood

Jim Wood

State Assembly, District 2 (Ukiah)

Jim Wood

State Assembly, District 2 (Ukiah)

How he voted 2021-2022
Liberal Conservative
District 2 Demographics

Voter Registration

Dem 51%
GOP 21%
No party 20%
Campaign Contributions

Asm. Jim Wood has taken at least $1.2 million from the Labor sector since he was elected to the legislature. That represents 26% of his total campaign contributions.

But the funding source — taxes — proposed in a separate bill will likely face an uphill battle. Tax hikes must be approved by two-thirds of lawmakers in both the state Assembly and Senate — a tall order, especially in an election year — and a majority of voters to go into effect. And the doctors’ lobby, insurance industry and business groups are already mobilizing against the bill.

  • Rob Lapsley, president of the California Business Roundtable: This “middle-class tax increase will drive more families into poverty, force more small businesses to close and compel more employers — and jobs — to leave this state.”

Here’s a closer look at how state lawmakers are proposing to pay for universal health care, which state analysts in 2017 estimated could cost about $400 billion annually:

  • A 2.3% excise tax on businesses after their first $2 million in income.
  • A 1.25% payroll tax on employers with 50-plus workers.
  • An additional 1% payroll tax on wages for resident employees earning more than $49,900.
  • A progressive income tax starting at 0.5% for Californians earning more than $149,500, up to 2.5% for people making about $2.5 million annually. (Those rates would also be adjusted for inflation.)

The bills present a conundrum for Gov. Gavin Newsom, who vowed to implement single-payer health care when campaigning for the governorship in 2018. That earned him the backing of powerful groups like the California Nurses Association and progressive activists — and now they want him to make good on his promise, especially after they mobilized to help him defeat the recall last September. An estimated 3.2 million Californians remain uninsured.

Learn more about legislators mentioned in this story

Ash Kalra

Ash Kalra

State Assembly, District 25 (San Jose)

Ash Kalra

State Assembly, District 25 (San Jose)

How he voted 2021-2022
Liberal Conservative
District 25 Demographics

Voter Registration

Dem 52%
GOP 16%
No party 27%
Campaign Contributions

Asm. Ash Kalra has taken at least $1.6 million from the Labor sector since he was elected to the legislature. That represents 54% of his total campaign contributions.

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The coronavirus bottom line: As of Wednesday, California had 5,530,751 confirmed cases (+0.9% from previous day) and 76,049 deaths (-0.01% from previous day), according to state data. CalMatters is also tracking coronavirus hospitalizations by county.

California has administered 65,613,968 vaccine doses, and 71.4% of eligible Californians are fully vaccinated.

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1. Californians hunker down — again

Signs encourage social distancing in the Assembly Gallery on Jan. 3, 2022. Photo by Miguel Gutierrez Jr., CalMatters

That sound you hear is thousands of Californians entering quarantine or isolation as omicron sweeps through the state. Nearly three dozen state lawmakers were absent from Thursday floor sessions after many of them, including Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon, were potentially exposed to COVID-19 at a farewell event for a colleague on Tuesday night, CalMatters’ Alexei Koseff reports — marking an inauspicious start to a legislative session that began less than a week ago. Other employers are beefing up protections: Los Angeles County is requiring businesses to provide, no later than Jan. 17, well-fitting medical-grade masks, surgical masks or respirators to employees who work indoors in close contact with others.

Quarantine figures are similarly startling in other workplaces. About 40% of hospitals are facing critical staff shortages, with some reporting that as much as 25% of their staff is absent due to virus-related reasons, a California Hospital Association representative told the Associated Press. Nearly 900 San Francisco teachers and aides — a whopping 20% of the district’s educator workforce — were absent Thursday, and Oakland Unified educators plan to hold a “sickout” today. Staff shortages have prompted temporary school closures in the East Bay, San Gabriel Valley, Redondo Beach, La Mesa and Carmel Valley, among other areas. Almost 200 San Diego Police Department employees are in isolation or quarantine. Around 450 Los Angeles County firefighters are quarantined, forcing the department to take the unprecedented step of transporting patients to the hospital in fire trucks rather than ambulances. And virus outbreaks are spreading through homeless shelters across the state, increasing demand for hotel rooms for self-isolation.

2. State swamped by testing demand

Long lines of cars wait for over two hours for a COVID-19 test at a testing site in Los Angeles on Jan. 5, 2022. Photo by Raquel Natalicchio for CalMatters

Worker shortages are only exacerbating California’s difficulty in meeting testing demand. Newsom announced tonight that he will deploy the California National Guard to expand capacity at testing sites. But the problem is also one of supply: COVID-19 tests are nearly impossible to find in the Bay Area, the San Francisco Chronicle reports, and the race to secure coveted appointments resulted in a four-hour traffic jam on Auto Mall Parkway in Fremont on Thursday. With appointments booked weeks in advance, and rapid test kits flying off the shelves as soon as they’re restocked, local governments such as Santa Clara County are trying to set up their own supply chains by negotiating with vendors. But increasing the supply of workers has proved even more challenging.

Demand for booster shots, meanwhile, isn’t nearly as high. Only 38% of vaccinated Californians have gotten a booster shot, according to an analysis from CalMatters’ Kristen Hwang and Ana Ibarra, and a third or less of residents are boosted in 20 of 58 counties. Only three counties — San Francisco, Marin and San Mateo — have seen more than half of their vaccinated residents get boosted.

3. Fire risk halts massive project proposal

A roadside is seen amid the burnt landscape in Lake County caused by the 2020 LNU Lightning Complex Fire.
A roadside is seen amid the burnt landscape in Lake County caused by the 2020 LNU Lightning Complex Fire. Photo via Reuters

A $1 billion proposal to build a luxury resort, fire station and 1,400 housing units in one of California’s poorest — and most fire-prone — regions was put on hold Thursday, when a superior court judge ruled that Lake County and the project developer failed to adequately account for potential hazards that could result from a wildfire forcing thousands of people to evacuate at the same time. The ruling is a win for Attorney General Rob Bonta and environmental groups, who recently secured a similar halt on a proposed development in a wildfire-prone area of San Diego. Taken together, the two rulings send a clear message: Local governments should not attempt to ease California’s housing crisis by building in areas of high fire risk — a term that applies to increasingly large swaths of the state.

  • Bonta: “We can’t keep making shortsighted land use decisions that will have impacts decades down the line. We must build responsibly.”
  • Lake County Supervisor Moke Simon: “The investments proposed, including adding housing supply and even a fire station and helipad, offered the potential for lasting regional economic benefits. If the ultimate result of this decision is the project not moving forward, that will be a tremendous loss.”

On the opposite side of the weather spectrum, PG&E estimates that it will finish restoring power by next Tuesday or sooner to approximately 14,000 customers in the Sierra Nevada foothills, some of whom have been without power for 11 days after fierce winter snowstorms swept the region.

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CalMatters commentary

Wrong move to restrict water rights: California should reward, not punish, local agencies that plan for responsible water use and make critical infrastructure upgrades, writes Sean White, director of water and sewer for the city of Ukiah.

Regulate Big Ag’s water use: Portraying our agricultural economy as driven by subsistence needs rather than the desire to maximize profit is a gross mischaracterization of a multibillion-dollar industry, argues Elizabeth Reid-Wainscoat of the Center for Biological Diversity.

Other things worth your time

Kelly Ernby stood against vaccine mandates. Her death from COVID made her a symbol. // Los Angeles Times

Cruise ship docks in San Francisco with passengers infected with coronavirus. Here’s what happens next, // San Francisco Chronicle

Family courts begin to weigh in on vaccination requirements. // Los Angeles Times

Pandemic may have helped California day care operator accused in infant’s death duck earlier probe. // Visalia Times-Delta

California AG: Don’t file murder charges in stillbirths. // Associated Press

Gun owners sue over California law allowing personal information to be used in research. // San Diego Union-Tribune

Crime concerns prompt San Diego to propose nighttime closures at several coastal parks. // San Diego Union-Tribune

22 historic streetlights stolen from Glendale-Hyperion bridge. // Los Angeles Times

Prevention efforts lead to 2021 drop in homicides in Stockton. // ABC 10

Can California’s biggest state worker union pay its bills? // Sacramento Bee

Los Angeles controller Ron Galperin jumps into California state controller race. // San Francisco Chronicle

Larry Elder isn’t running for governor, but he may run for president. // FOX 11 Los Angeles

Recycling fraud costing Californians up to $200 million annually, report says. // Mercury News

Ninth Circuit rejects challenge to California wildfire ‘bailout’ fund. // Courthouse News

Experts push California utilities to monitor the riskiest equipment on the grid. // Marketplace

With Biden administration eyeing wind leases off California’s coast, Port of Humboldt sees an opportunity. // Inside Climate News

A rare look inside Bernard Judge’s experimental Tree House. // Los Angeles Times

See you Monday.

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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...