The beginning of 2020 held incredible promise for Governor Newsom and his team. The State faced an historic budget surplus. Newsom proposed billions in new spending—striking the balance of new programs while attacking head on the State’s rapidly growing pension liabilities. In February, during his State of the State, Newsom laid out a game plan for the year that began with high hopes of passing monumental legislation. In furtherance of his 2019 housing “Marshall Plan,” the Governor spent nearly the entirety of his annual address to the Legislature outlining an aggressive agenda that would boost affordable housing and help address the homelessness crisis. However, only mere weeks after his State of the State address, Governor Newsom faced a once-in-a-generation crisis—a global pandemic.
In an instant the State went from a thriving economy to shuttered businesses, mandated lockdowns and a projected 54-billion-dollar state budget deficit. This brought upon an unprecedented legislative session with even the most seasoned political professionals working to navigate the unknown. In March, the legislative session was abruptly adjourned under a statewide mandatory stay-at-home in order. With the closure of most businesses that were deemed non-essential, the State, as well as the nation, began to the see unemployment numbers rise. California leads the nation with over 8 million new claims filed in 2020 according to the latest Department of Labor statistics. In May, the economic downturn and the public health crisis became front and center when the legislature returned from their unplanned six-week recess.
When members returned, they attempted to resume legislative business only to have several members and staff test positive for the virus, resulting in another closure of the Capitol. The break was the second extended recess for California lawmakers this session. Both houses were able to return on July 27—after an additional two weeks of delay—with safety precautions allowing for socially distanced meetings.
In the wake of the controversial officer-involved deaths of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, cities nationwide broke out in unrest and protest demanding racial equity and justice for the victims. Cities across California enlisted the help of the National Guard to quell violence in the streets. Businesses that were already struggling due to COVID-19 now found themselves the victims of looting and theft. With three weeks left in the legislative session, police reform and social justice were elevated to the list of high priority legislation that needed resolution this year. To make matters worse, California experienced, record heatwaves, rolling blackouts, unprecedented dry lightning storms and millions of acres scorched by wildfires—all resulting in billions of unplanned expenditures to account for.
Each of these factors aided to the noticeably high tension running through both legislative chambers. Tensions grew not only between political parties, but between the houses themselves, in the waning hours before the constitutional end-of-session deadline, as Legislative leaders were trying to triage what key legislation should advance. Due to Republican Senator Brian Jones (R, Santee) testing positive for COVID-19 in the final weeks of Session, the upper house required that all Republican Senators who were in contact with him to self-quarantine for two weeks—resulting in all but one Republican senator voting remotely via Zoom. The Assembly faced its own set of challenges. Specifically, Assemblywoman Buffy Wicks (D, Oakland) was required to appear in person, newborn baby in tow, to vote on important legislation including expanded family leave. The legislature adjourned for the year after simply running out of time to vote on a number of bills.
All told, the impact COVID-19 had on the legislative process was profound. The Legislature halted work for two additional months versus a traditional legislative session. This resulted in a major culling of legislative proposals as lawmakers were forced to park a majority of their priority measures. For context, during a normal legislative session over 2,500 measures are introduced. On average, over 1,200 bills are approved by the Legislature in the last year of a two-year session. By stark contrast, in 2020, 432 bills were approved by the California Legislature and 372 bills were signed by the Governor, the smallest number in decades. Despite the profound impacts that COVID-19 had on the legislative process, lawmakers still made the most out of their time in Sacramento, advancing critical measures such as AB 3088 (Chiu) that allows for a temporary moratorium on residential evictions, a variety of police reform measures, some housing and homelessness measures.