What Kounalakis gets to do as acting California governor

Your guide to California policy and politics
Lynn La BY Lynn La April 11, 2023
Presented by Dairy Cares, Southern California Gas Company, Climate-Smart Agricultural Partnership and Politifest 2023

What Kounalakis gets to do as acting California governor

Monday, California Lt. Gov. Eleni Kounalakis issued a proclamation honoring labor activist Dolores Huerta on her 93rd birthday. 

But it was Gov. Gavin Newsom who announced the state has secured an emergency stockpile of as many as 2 million Misoprostol pills in response to a federal judge suspending FDA approval of another abortion pill on Friday.

That’s pretty much how it goes when Kounalakis is acting governor because Newsom is out of state (or in this case, reportedly out of the country, in the Bahamas). Her job is far more issuing proclamations than making major pronouncements or signing legislation.

Kounalakis, the first woman to be elected to the No. 2 office in California, did make history last year as the first woman ever to sign a bill into California law when she extended an eviction moratorium while Newsom was on another family vacation abroad. (That same day, she also signed an election bill on disabled, military and overseas voters.)

Last month, she signed her third piece of legislation, ensuring the availability of COVID laboratory testing and therapeutics after the end of California’s state of emergency. Last week, she submitted a request for federal disaster aid after the cancellation of salmon season

In some states, Texas for example, the lieutenant governor’s office has more responsibilities and wields a lot more influence. But in California, the role has historically been rather minimal: voting on the boards of the three public higher education systems, serving on the commission that oversees state land, and stepping in when the governor leaves the state. 

California is also one of a handful of states where the lieutenant governor is independently elected. That can lead to some friction: Newsom, when he had the job, didn’t always see eye to eye with then-Gov. Jerry Brown. And when governors and lieutenant governors belong to different political parties, they can clash, as happened with Democrat Brown and Republican Lt. Gov. Michael Curb.

In the case of Newsom and Kounalakis, however, their relationship is much more amicable. As their press offices told CalMatters, they coordinate what happens when she’s filling in:

  • Aleksandra Reetz, Kounalakis spokesperson: “We have a really collaborative and close and positive working relationship with the governor’s office. That comes from the top. The lieutenant governor and the governor have a decades-long relationship, and this governor knows what it’s like to be the lieutenant. He understands what the job is, and that goes for his staff as well.”
  • Alex Stack, Newsom spokesperson: “There are some things you can plan for, like the Dolores Huerta Day proclamation, and some things you can’t plan for like what the judge did on Friday…. It’s a case-by-case basis, and we’re all a team and we work with each other very closely.”

And while lieutenant governor is not always a stepping stone to governor, Newsom made that move. Kounalakis makes no secret she wants to be next: She told CalMatters during her reelection campaign last year that it’s “very good training ground for the bigger job.”

For the record: A previous version of this item incorrectly said that Jerry Brown once served as lieutenant governor.


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1 Patients afraid as mask mandate ends

Beth Kenny at Crab Cove in Alameda, Calif., on Friday on Apr. 8th, 2023. Photo by Felix Uribe for CalMatters
Beth Kenny is immunocompromised and says dropping masking requirements in health care is “devastating.” Kenny is pictured at Crab Cove in Alameda on April 8, 2023. Photo by Felix Uribe, CalMatters

Following the end of mask mandates in schools last month, the California Department of Public Health ended its statewide masking mandate for healthcare workers on April 3. But advocates for California’s most medically vulnerable — those with severe illnesses or suppressed immune systems — say they have been abandoned by their legislators and health officials. 

As CalMatters’ health reporter Kristen Hwang explains, these patients are left with a grim choice: Potentially expose themselves to COVID-19 when visiting these health facilities and doctor’s offices — or stay home and avoid necessary health treatments altogether.

  • Elizabeth Zambelli, a San Francisco resident on immunosuppressive medication: “It’s terrible to put people in a position where people have to ration care because they have to decide if they can safely access that health care.”

All California counties, and most of the U.S., have low transmission levels, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And while some of the state’s largest health systems have dropped masking requirements, other local health departments and individual facilities can still mandate masking. 

This inconsistency, however, makes it difficult for patients to navigate. And with average testing rates dropping and the 14-daily average for COVID-19 hospitalizations at a higher level this year than it was the same time in 2022, advocates question the rationale of ending mask mandates. They’re also frustrated that the state has neither created, nor made public, criteria that would reinstate masking orders, Kristen reports.

This lack of guidelines indicates a shift in California’s approach to the pandemic. In the beginning of COVID-19, the state still knew little about the virus, but issued “strong statewide consistency” in its response to the health crisis, state epidemiologist Dr. Erica Pan told Kristen. 

But these days, Pan said, information about the pandemic is varying and disparate — such as data about herd immunity levels, the behaviors of different virus variants and the reliability of at-home testing rates — that it would be too difficult to issue practical statewide mandates.

Another sign that the pandemic is “over” as far as California policy is concerned: On Thursday, the Department of Public Health posted the last of its weekly news releases of COVID-19 data and state response to the pandemic. Its tracking dashboard, which keeps tabs on infection and vaccination rates, deaths and test results, will still be updated weekly.

And on Monday, President Biden ended the federal COVID emergency a month ahead of schedule after Republicans in Congress forced his hand.

2 CA homebuyer loan program tapped dry

A home with a real estate sign in front of it in Tower District in central Fresno on June 28, 2022. Photo by Larry Valenzuela, CalMatters/CatchLight Local
A home with a real estate sign in central Fresno on June 28, 2022. Photo by Larry Valenzuela, CalMatters/CatchLight Local

Well, that was quick: 11 days after the California Housing Finance Agency opened applications for a first-time homebuyers loan program, eager applicants have used up all the program’s money. 

As reported by CalMatters’ Alejandro Lazo and Ben Christopher, $288 million in initial funding will go to 2,564 homebuyers. Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins of San Diego, who championed the program, said she will seek additional funding during upcoming budget talks. Until then, the program is on pause until more money is available.

The program is limited to households earning less than 150% of median earnings in their county, and was partly established to address the ethnic and racial wealth disparities in homeownership among Black and Latino families in California. 

So, did the initiative meet its goals? Sort of. According to the preliminary data uncovered by Alejandro and Ben:

  • About two-thirds of the beneficiaries are those making less than $125,000;
  • 65% of initial buyers identified as white, 18% as Asian and 4% as Black;
  • Ethnically, 34% of homebuyers identified as Hispanic or Latino.

Eric Johnson, an agency spokesman, told CalMatters that compared to the state’s overall population, the program is doing a “pretty decent job of representing California.” 

But the program’s beneficiaries are still less diverse than California as a whole, and the money wasn’t spread out evenly across the state, either.

  • Atkins, in a statement: “While this program has been immensely successful in getting new homebuyers into the market quickly and in places with low homeownership rates like the Central Valley, clearly more work needs to be done to make sure that there is statewide awareness, particularly in communities of color.”

3 Will legislators adopt reparations recommendations?

A Reparations Task Force Meeting at San Diego State on Jan. 28, 2023. Photo by Ariana Drehsler, CalMatters
Members of a state reparations task force hold a public hearing at San Diego State University on Jan. 28, 2023. Photo by Ariana Drehsler, CalMatters

California’s first-in-the-nation task force to study whether and how the state should pay reparations for residents who are descendants of slaves always had its work cut out for it. And with its research set to wrap up in a few months, it’s still not clear if the Legislature will accept its recommendations when it comes time to hand them in, reports Wendy Fry fromCalMatters’ California Divide team.

The idea of reparations itself is controversial and complex — the state-appointed panel has received angry calls and only slightly more emails initially supporting payment than opposing it. But as the July 1 deadline draws nearer, updates from the group have remained steady. 

Earlier this month, for example, the panel outlined two methods for payment, it decided the state should issue a formal apology and it instructed the Department of Justice to use the term “African American” in final documents.

Despite this progress, however, two vital questions remain: How much will reparations cost the state? And will the Legislature support the recommendations of the task force?

Previously, the nine-person body made it clear that it was not yet ready to issue a final dollar figure for reparations. Now, based on the recommendation by economists that the task force approved, the Legislature will be the one responsible for determining the compensation amount.

In 2020, legislators voted 58 to 12 in favor of the law that created the task force. But in a recent, informal CalMatters poll of Assemblymembers, only three out of 80 legislators confirmed their support for the group. The rest did not respond.

Despite this vague outlook, support for the task force’s work, especially after the June 2022 release of its interim report, has grown. Within a few weeks, endorsements from outside organizations throughout California grew from 30 to more than 130 organizations. 


CalMatters Commentary

CalMatters columnist Dan Walters: California’s budget process is being used to make a major change in how the state procures electric power. What could go wrong?

Assembly Bill 1228 seeks to increase accountability for California fast food companies, but it could diminish the independence of local franchise owners, writes Jay Hazari, who owns nine McDonald’s restaurants in Sacramento and the Central Valley.


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What are strange blue blobs blanketing California beaches? // The Sacramento Bee

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