Internet Explorer 11 is not supported

For optimal browsing, we recommend Chrome, Firefox or Safari browsers.

Lawmakers Return and Have 6 Weeks to Pass Balanced Budget

California legislators returned to the capitol after nearly two months away to deal with coronavirus legislation and the budget deficit. The lawmakers have until June 15 to pass a balanced budget or go without pay.

(TNS) — Legislators returned to the California Capitol on Monday for the first time in nearly two months, confronting an urgent need to deal with coronavirus legislation and a formidable budget deficit.

They must handle bills ranging from compensation for sick essential workers to planning for a November election that’s likely to be done mostly by mail. They also must work with Gov. Gavin Newsom to address a shortfall that could total $35 billion.

And they don’t have much time to get it all done. They must pass a balanced budget by June 15 or go without pay, and will have only a couple of months after that to consider other bills before the legislative session is scheduled to end.

Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon said he is resisting calls to focus only on coronavirus response. The Assembly returns Monday, while the Senate has extended its recess one more week.

There will be fewer bills, as members triage their legislative platforms and committee chairs pare hearing agendas. But California still faces problems that existed before the pandemic, Rendon said, including the lack of affordable housing, widespread homelessness, climate change and lack of access to clean water in some parts of the state.

The impacts of the coronavirus will be all-encompassing, however, including a budget process likely to extend to the end of the session in August as the Legislature deliberates cuts.

“As a Democrat, I believe in an activist government. As a Democrat, I believe that government can help us solve problems,” said Rendon, D-Lakewood (Los Angeles County). “Californians need us more now than ever.”

Here are the most pressing coronavirus-related problems the Legislature will confront:

Budget deficit: Lawmakers must immediately get to work on a multibillion-dollar deficit the pandemic has created. The surplus and rainy-day reserve that California built up in recent years will help, but won’t eliminate the problem.

Newsom and lawmakers will probably have to abandon many progressive policy goals and pass a placeholder budget in June that continues current spending levels. Then, they’ll have to start cutting.

Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, the San Diego Democrat who chairs the powerful Appropriations Committee, said legislators have been told to be selective in proposing bills.

“We’re got to be realistic about how we look at all the bills coming forward,” she said. “We said, ‘Re-examine what you’re sending,’ for a variety of reasons.”

Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins, D-San Diego, said the pandemic has shifted the focus of the session from the legislative agenda to the budget, which she hopes can “help those who have been devastated and hurt.”

“The budget is the single most important tool that we have in California to impact lives,” she said. “We’ve got a lot of work to do in short order and we want to be focused and we want to be thoughtful.”

The legislative analyst warned last month that the pandemic could blow a $35 billion hole in next year’s budget, with additional losses of $85 billion in the years that follow. Newsom must release a revised spending plan this month, and he has warned that numerous cuts are on the table.

Assemblyman Phil Ting, the San Francisco Democrat who chairs the Budget Committee, said lawmakers will consider asking voters to issue bonds to fund infrastructure projects to stimulate the economy.

Otherwise, he said, the state cannot borrow money and is largely dependent on the federal government to fund recovery programs.

“That is the challenge,” Ting said.

Voting by mail: The likelihood that the pandemic will still be here this fall has fueled calls for a vote-by-mail November election to prevent crowding at polling places.

Assemblyman Marc Berman, D-Palo Alto, has led the push. His AB860 would require elections officials to mail a ballot to every registered voter in California.

Most people already vote by mail — about 78% of voters did so in the March primary. Berman’s bill would make that nearly universal, though he said the state should allow for a limited number of polling places, with social distancing guidelines.

“Hopefully, we don’t have a second phase (of the pandemic), but we need to plan as if there will be,” Berman said.

Berman said his effort has drawn no organized opposition, though he expects it could cost the state several million dollars.

Rent and mortgage relief: California judicial officials have halted evictions and some foreclosures until 90 days after Newsom ends the stay-at-home order. But legislators say they want to cement those protections in state law and go further.

Ting has proposed AB828 to freeze evictions and allow courts to set up repayment plans so tenants can stay in their homes. He said he is considering seeking a ban on rent increases during the pandemic.

Assemblyman David Chiu, D-San Francisco, who carried legislation last year that established a statewide cap on rent increases, said “the support for the plight of tenants has only grown” during the pandemic, but that California will “very likely need federal assistance” to pay for any program to prevent mass evictions of those who have fallen behind on their rent.

“It has certainly continued to shine a bright light on the precarious situation for tenants in our state,” Chiu said.

Compensation for frontline workers: Employees on the front lines of the pandemic could have an easier time securing workers’ compensation benefits under a proposed bill.

Essential workers who contract the coronavirus now must prove they were infected on the job in order to qualify for workers’ compensation and have their employer pay for costs associated with the illness.

AB664 by Gonzalez and Assemblyman Jim Cooper, D-Elk Grove (Sacramento County), would put the burden on employers to prove a worker wasn’t exposed on the job.

“It would be tough for an individual worker to show that they were infected on the job. Until we’re doing tracing, that would be hard to prove,” Gonzalez said.

The effort is supported by labor unions, but it’s likely to face opposition from businesses that say they’re already under an existential economic strain.

The Workers’ Compensation Insurance Rating Bureau of California, an association of insurance companies, estimates that claims from essential workers with the coronavirus would cost $2.2 billion to $33.6 billion a year if the bill passes.

Expanding paid sick leave: Democratic lawmakers will propose legislation to close loopholes in federal and state law to ensure all workers have at least two weeks of paid sick leave during the pandemic.

Newsom signed an executive order April 16 requiring large companies to give food sector employees such as farmworkers, grocery store clerks and delivery drivers paid time off if they contract the virus or are quarantined.

His order partly closed a loophole in Congress’ coronavirus response, which requires businesses to provide sick leave during the pandemic unless they have more than 500 employees.

California legislators said they want to require two weeks for all workers, not just those covered by Newsom’s order. California law now requires three paid sick days for all employees.

Assemblyman Rob Bonta, D-Oakland, said expanding sick leave could help slow the spread of the virus, by removing the economic incentive for sick workers to show up.

“We need to make people comfortable to make public health decisions and not have that pressure to go to work sick,” he said.

Help for farmworkers: Legislators will debate a package of bills to provide relief for agricultural workers and prevent disruption to California’s food supply chain.

The primary bill, AB2915, would provide farmworkers with paid sick leave, hazard pay, child care assistance and temporary housing to prevent overcrowding. Another bill, AB2956, would give farming companies a tax credit to pay overtime in an effort to combat a labor shortage.

©2020 the San Francisco Chronicle. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Special Projects