In summary

At an historic Assembly meeting, lawmakers on both sides criticized Gov. Gavin Newsom for proposing billions in cuts to schools, health care and safety net programs.

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California shouldn’t rely so heavily on money from the federal government to close its budget deficit, a bipartisan chorus of lawmakers told the administration of Gov. Gavin Newsom during an unusual hearing Tuesday.

Almost every member of the state Assembly spoke out about Newsom’s proposal to slash billions from the budget amid the pandemic-induced recession.

The governor’s approach — which would cut $14 billion to schools, health care and safety net programs unless more funding comes through from the federal government — ignores “pure science in favor of political science,” said Assemblyman Jim Wood, a Healdsburg Democrat. 

“It… feels like an overdependence on the federal government with an unpredictable administration,” Wood said.  “If you are aged, poor or disabled, this budget is devastating.”

Lawmakers have questioned whether Newsom’s projected $54 billion deficit is accurate, or a worst-case scenario meant to influence decisions by the Legislature and the federal government. Newsom’s proposal calls for deep budget cuts to schools, child care, programs for seniors and environmental protection

That leaves California “waiting on federal aid that may or may not come,” said Republican Assemblyman Jim Patterson of Fresno. “If this financial aid does not materialize, what is the Plan B?” 

One way the state could bring in more money would be to permit sports betting, boost taxes on electronic cigarettes and tax lottery winnings, suggested Assemblyman Adam Gray, a Merced Democrat.

“It certainly won’t solve our budget crisis, but given the incredible impacts of the coronavirus on our bottom line, these proposals provide some flexibility,” Gray said.

Their comments came during an historic meeting of the 80-member Assembly, which gathered in full at the Capitol for the first time since mid-March, when lawmakers passed a pandemic response measure and then left the Capitol for two months. Following public health guidelines, lawmakers wore masks and were spaced out on the Assembly floor, with each legislator occupying two desks. Access to the Capitol was limited, and a nurse was stationed at the entrance to check temperatures of reporters who entered.

Lawmakers questioned Newsom’s finance director as they reviewed the $203 billion budget he proposed earlier this month—a task that is more tumultuous than usual. Lawmakers were home when they normally would have held budget hearings, and the state’s economy changed drastically during that time.

“The effects of the recession are massive — on people and on the state’s budget,” Keely Bosler, Newsom’s finance director, told lawmakers.

Huge job losses from the pandemic have left the state confronting a one-two punch: less tax money coming in, but more demand for government services such as health care and unemployment insurance.  

Lawmakers and Newsom have just a few weeks to negotiate a solution. The Legislature must pass a budget by June 15, and the governor has until the end of June to sign it. 

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Laurel covers California politics for CalMatters, with a focus on power and personalities in the statehouse. Her stories explain political dynamics in the Capitol and examine how money, advocacy and relationships...