California Lawmakers Want Say in Governor’s Virus Spending

Apr 22, 2020 | Government

Cuneyt DilAssociated Press

Sacramento, CA (AP) — Five weeks after giving California Gov. Gavin Newsom broad power to spend up to $1 billion on coronavirus precautions, state lawmakers on Monday said they feared overreach by the governor’s office and sought more answers on a contract to buy millions of protective masks.

“The emergency powers that were granted were with an understanding that this would be for a certain amount of discreet time,” said Democratic Assemblyman Phil Ting, chair of the budget oversight committee. There “definitely wasn’t the sense that there was a blank check or that we would just be notified after expenditures were already committed to.”

His comments came during a budget oversight hearing on the money Newsom has already spent and his administration’s prediction it will spend $7 billion or more tackling the pandemic. Lawmakers called for Newsom to work with the legislature before spending money on relief measures, citing language from the coronavirus bill passed last month that gave Newsom new spending authority. They passed the bill March 16 before suspending their legislative session.

“It’s clear the administration is working with stakeholders but not with the legislature or the legislative staff,” said Jim Wood, a Democrat from Santa Rosa. “I have a health committee staff that has over a hundred years of health policy experience and we have not been engaged.”

He said Newsom’s unilateral spending is a “bipartisan concern,” echoing the Republican vice chair of the budget oversight committee, Assemblyman Jay Obernolte, who questioned whether the governor’s broadened emergency spending powers included social safety net programs. State officials defended using part of the funds on food banks, homelessness and filling other gaps that federal funding did not address.

“I feel like the Legislature has been bypassed on this issue,” Obernolte replied.

Lawmakers also pressed for details on a roughly $1 billion contract the administration signed with the Chinese company BYD to manufacture 200 million protective masks per month. Newsom’s administration hasn’t released the contract details to lawmakers or the public.

Doing so could jeopardize the delivery of the supplies, said Mark Ghilarducci, director of the Office of Emergency Services. He said the Newsom administration will release more details when possible, including how much the state paid for each mask.

“When the course of the time is correct, we will release the contract,” Ghilarducci said. “I think you’ll find that the price point was pretty good given the circumstances.” He said the state expects shipments to begin next week.

Ting also pressed Newsom administration officials about how many coronavirus tests the state needs to be doing daily in order to reopen public life.

The state plans to hit its goal of 25,000 daily tests by the start of next month, said Marko Mijic of the California Health and Human Services Agency. But he said the state is in short supply of swabs to collect results on tests, creating a backlog of pending tests.

He could not say how many tests California needs to be completing every day in order to ease restrictions on businesses and movement.

“We’re assessing that right now,” Mijic said.

Meanwhile, state finance officials reported Monday the state collected $84 million more in revenue than projected in March. That’s despite the state spending about half the month under a stay at home order, but before the brunt of the pandemic’s economic devastation. Newsom last week said the state is now in a “pandemic-induced recession.”

For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough, that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe life-threatening illness, including pneumonia, and death.

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