Are California programs having their intended effect?
With California lawmakers debating the fate of some 1,200-plus bills ahead of the end of the legislative session this month, let’s check in on some existing programs’ effectiveness.
Today, an in-depth assessment of California’s unemployment insurance program is set to be released by the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office, which advises lawmakers on fiscal issues. As CalMatters economy reporter Grace Gedye notes, the study comes at a crucial time: Not only is California confronting a possible recession and ongoing layoffs in the tech industry, but the Employment Development Department is also working to resolve issues that saw it pay out at least $20 billion worth of fraudulent claims amid the pandemic and scramble to answer jobless residents’ calls for help.
- Chas Alamo, principal fiscal and policy analyst for the Legislative Analyst’s Office: The report will “describe how the program’s basic design has encouraged the state and EDD to enact policies and take actions that make it difficult for eligible workers to get (unemployment benefits).” It will also include “about a dozen specific recommendations to rebalance the program.”
Tuesday, state lawmakers are scheduled to hold a hearing to assess California’s response so far to the COVID-19 pandemic — which has killed more than 93,000 residents — and explore how the state can prepare for the next public health emergency. Ironically, the newly formed Senate Select Committee on Monkeypox will meet at the exact same time to discuss the state’s response to the virus, which Gov. Gavin Newsom officially declared an emergency last week.
Speaking of public health, a little more than a year after California launched a program to provide hearing aids for an estimated 2,300 children annually who lack health insurance, it has provided devices to only 39 children, according to this eye-popping report from CalMatters’ Elizabeth Aguilera.
- The California Department of Health Care Services, which oversees the program, refused to tell Elizabeth why it had served so few children in its first year.
- But parents and advocates pointed to myriad problems: For families, the application process is cumbersome and households with partial insurance coverage are ineligible. For physicians, reimbursement time is long and reimbursement rates are low.
- Pediatric audiologist Dr. Mary Frintner, one of three Los Angeles County providers enrolled in the program, said she has yet to be reimbursed for any services: “I love all my patients, the joy I see when I put a hearing aid on a child for the (first) time. … That’s what I get, which makes me rich.”
On the housing front, however, there may be some promising news. During the pandemic, the federal government unveiled revamped, emergency Section 8 vouchers, which help cover rent and utilities for low-income households. Local and federal officials say bonuses for landlords and other new features seem to be helping vulnerable tenants find apartments, even as landlords’ reluctance to accept vouchers in some of California’s tightest rental markets — and potential housing discrimination — remain sizable hurdles, CalMatters’ Manuela Tobias and Jeanne Kuang report.
- Although California received just 25% of the country’s allotment of emergency vouchers, it so far accounts for 45% of the funds spent on landlord incentives.
- Voucher utilization rates also vary dramatically across the state: Between July 2021 and July 20, 2022, Redding used about 90% of its emergency housing vouchers to successfully lease units, while the city of Los Angeles used about 5.8%.
- Sasha Harnden, a public policy advocate at Inner City Law Center who helped draft a 2019 state law barring landlords from rejecting vouchers: “It may be appropriate to talk about incentives at some point. But what we’ve not seen is really robust enforcement of the law that prohibits refusing the vouchers in the first place.”
- Daniel Yukelson, executive director of the Apartment Association of Greater Los Angeles: “There’s just not enough money put on the table for people to jump for it. If I had a vacant unit and had 20 people show up — there’s a bunch of people begging to rent my apartment — why deal with all the administrative burdens (that come with a voucher)?”
The coronavirus bottom line: As of Thursday, California had 10,024,326 confirmed cases (+0.4% from previous day) and 93,056 deaths (+0.2% from previous day), according to state data now updated just twice a week on Tuesdays and Fridays. CalMatters is also tracking coronavirus hospitalizations by county.
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1 Back to school for thousands of kids
How quickly summer vacation passes: Today, thousands of California students — including those in Oakland Unified School District — are set to return to campus for the start of the new school year, with San Francisco Unified and Los Angeles Unified recommencing next week. But, even as some pandemic constraints fall away — many testing programs have been significantly rolled back, face masks are now optional on most campuses and the state won’t require students to get vaccinated against COVID until July 1, 2023 at the earliest — some of schools’ most pressing challenges remain. Among them:
- Staffing shortages. Oakland Unified as of Thursday still had 40 to 50 educator openings, while San Francisco Unified — which is starting classes Aug. 17 — had about 120 teacher vacancies, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. Los Angeles Unified, which is starting school on Aug. 15, had about 900 classroom teacher vacancies and a shortage of more than 200 bus drivers as of late July, according to the Los Angeles Times. And a massive surge in state and federal money may not solve California’s long-standing teacher shortage: “The influx of new funding is creating more positions in the district overall — some for current staff, and other positions for which we need to find candidates,” Oakland Unified spokesperson John Sasaki told the Chronicle. Meanwhile, Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond announced Thursday the launch of a state program that aims to recruit 10,000 new school counselors by helping fund their education and residency programs.
- Closing schools. Amid quickly dwindling public school enrollment, some campuses — including more than a dozen in Oakland Unified — are set to shutter or merge. To protest the closures, a group of Oakland families since June has been occupying Parker Elementary School and running an unsanctioned summer program there, despite repeated clashes with district officials — including one Thursday that turned violent. “This is a working-class neighborhood,” Misty Cross, a West Oakland resident volunteering with the program, told the San Francisco Chronicle. “Families here work two or three jobs. To make their kids go to school 30 blocks away” is not right. “Of great concern is that the children that were onsite were sleeping in unsafe conditions and that the adults were running an unsafe and unlicensed child care program,” said Sakaki, the district spokesperson.
- Health concerns. More than 1 in 8 California children need to catch up on routine vaccinations missed or delayed during the pandemic, some of which are required to attend child care and school, the California Department of Public Health said Thursday. The agency noted that “many vaccine-preventable diseases, such as whooping cough and measles, can easily spread in childcare and school settings.”
2 Will 4 a.m. be the new 2 a.m.?
Should bars and nightclubs be allowed to sell alcohol until 4 a.m. instead of the current 2 a.m. cutoff? That’s the question California lawmakers are set to answer this week as part of the suspense file, an opaque, twice-annual procedure in which they rattle through a list of hundreds of bills at breakneck speed, passing or killing them without a word of explanation. One of the proposals on Thursday’s suspense file — authored by San Francisco Democratic Assemblymember Matt Haney and state Sen. Scott Wiener — would launch a pilot program allowing qualifying bars, taverns, nightclubs and restaurants in Cathedral City, Coachella, Fresno, Oakland, Palm Springs, West Hollywood and the city and county of San Francisco to sell liquor until 4 a.m.
The measure is supported by West Hollywood and the city and county of San Francisco, among others. “Many bars and venues are still facing mountains of debt as a result of the last few years,” Wiener said in a late June statement. “We need to give them every possible tool to help them survive — including allowing them to stay open until 4 a.m. Nightlife is a core part of who we are as a state, and our world-class bars and nightclubs deserve a fighting chance.”
But opposition to the bill has steadily been mounting. The Los Angeles County Democratic Party in late June voted to oppose the measure. Last week, Fresno Mayor Jerry Dyer withdrew his city from the pilot program, citing “recent anxiety on a local level” about increased drunk driving and deaths. And on Friday, the Los Angeles City Council voted to oppose the bill, arguing it wasn’t an improvement over a 2018 version vetoed by then-Gov. Jerry Brown that would have included Los Angeles among its pilot cities.
- Councilmember Paul Koretz: “I believe the bill’s authors figured if they took L.A. out, that we would simmer down and not oppose it. But let me be clear: This bill still threatens our public safety, perhaps even more than before.”
3 What might California get from climate bill?
The sweeping climate, health and tax package passed by the U.S. Senate on Sunday — following a tiebreaker vote from Vice President Kamala Harris — will deliver tens of billions of dollars to California if approved by the U.S. House of Representatives in a vote expected later this week. The legislation would extend federal pandemic health care subsidies for another three years; lower the cost of prescription drugs for the 6.5 million Californians enrolled in Medicare; funnel nearly $13 billion into drought resiliency, wildfire prevention, ecosystem restoration and land conservation programs; reduce pollution at ports and airports; and pour tens of billions of dollars into tax credits, including for Californians to buy used zero-emission cars, for households to electrify home appliances, and for manufacturers to accelerate production of solar panels, wind turbines, batteries and other clean technologies, according to a fact sheet from California U.S. Sen. Alex Padilla’s office.
The vote comes as California grapples with a slew of environmental phenomena:
- A red flag warning signaling increased fire danger due to gusty winds and low humidity is in effect through today for the McKinney Fire, which as of Sunday morning had blazed through more than 60,000 acres of the Klamath National Forest in Siskiyou County and was 40% contained, according to Cal Fire. The wildfire has killed at least four people and destroyed at least 87 homes so far, while a flash flood caused by heavy rains over the burn area last week appears to have killed tens of thousands of Klamath River fish, the Karuk Tribe said Saturday. The blaze has also inflamed the resentments some Siskiyou County residents feel toward Sacramento when it comes to forest management: “Our slogan in (the town of) Weed is, ‘You can log it, you can graze it or you can burn it down,'” Mayor Kim Greene told the Los Angeles Times. “The state of California chooses to burn it down.”
- Meanwhile, lightning strikes ignited a complex of wildfires in the Six Rivers National Forest in Trinity and Humboldt counties on Friday, forcing evacuations. As of Sunday, the blazes had collectively burned more than 1,100 acres and were 0% contained.
- Flash floods temporarily stranded 1,000 people in Death Valley National Park, which on Friday received nearly 75% of the rainfall it normally sees in a year. About 60 vehicles were trapped in mud and debris, while many businesses and hotel rooms were flooded or otherwise damaged. Roads blocked by water or debris are expected to remain closed into this week, officials told the Associated Press. Parts of Highway 89 in Alpine County are also closed following mudslides in the burn scars of previous wildfires, according to state transportation officials.
- Brooks Lambertson, 29, was one of three people killed in a lightning strike in Washington, D.C., last week. Lambertson, who graduated from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and lived in downtown Los Angeles, was a vice president at City National Bank and was visiting the nation’s capital on business, according to a statement from the bank.
CalMatters columnist Dan Walters: An old conflict plagues Newsom’s proposal to bore a tunnel to carry water under the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.
California can protect kids from social media’s immoral ploys: If Assembly Bill 2408 becomes law, it will hold accountable the largest social media giants that have played a leading role in the most acute and widespread youth mental health crisis experts have ever seen, argue state Sen. Henry Stern, a Calabasas Democrat, and Jim Steyer, CEO of Common Sense Media.
Drought demands better oversight of well drilling: Lawmakers should pass Assembly Bill 2201 to ensure that new wells can be permitted only after proving they won’t harm drinking water or otherwise obstruct sustainable groundwater management, write Ruth Martinez of the Ducor Water Board and Roger Dickinson, an author of California’s Sustainable Groundwater Management Act.
Other things worth your time
Water wars in a drying California: New money vs. old power in San Joaquin Valley. // Mercury News
As drought grips Catalina, desalination keeps crisis at bay. // Los Angeles Times
Tainted groundwater from old Rocketdyne site has inched toward homes and L.A. River. // Daily News
‘No time for inaction’: How a California refinery disaster created a generation of activists. // The Guardian
Stay or go? Some ignore evacuation orders — and die in California’s worsening wildfires. // Sacramento Bee
Appeals court halts construction at Berkeley’s People’s Park. // Associated Press
L.A. voters to decide whether hotels must rent vacant rooms to homeless people. // Los Angeles Times
Tahoe ski resorts desperate for worker housing are turning to brutal campsites. // San Francisco Chronicle
Abortions are widely available in California, but not for these women. // Los Angeles Times
San Clemente city council backs off abortion ban following public backlash. // Voice of OC
California is giving kids free money for college. Here’s what families need to know. // San Francisco Chronicle
Government tax-raising workaround is legal, but awkward. // San Diego Union-Tribune
California DMV accuses Tesla of false advertising. // CNBC
Penalties for violating rights of the disabled don’t apply to public schools, state Supreme Court rules. // San Francisco Chronicle
Hope and hard lessons as California youth try to lower voting age for school board. // EdSource
California ‘the state everyone can’t wait to leave behind,’ Kevin Kiley tells CPAC audience. // Sacramento Bee
Conservatives at CPAC conference believe Gavin Newsom will be Democratic nominee in 2024. // Daily Mail
Outspoken prosecutor who clashed with D.A. Gascón now target of internal investigation. // Los Angeles Times
‘What exactly are they doing?’: S.F. traffic cops issue just 10 citations a day. // San Francisco Chronicle
Residents decry placing another sexually violent predator in Borrego Springs. // San Diego Union-Tribune
Arrest made in assault that broke 70-year-old city commissioner’s arm. // San Francisco Standard
Latest victim to settle with San Jose State over trainer sex abuse exposes another scandal. // Mercury News
After an alleged rape near SDSU, one investigation ends and another begins. Too little, too late? // San Diego Union-Tribune