California lawmakers convened a legislative session like never before on Monday, swearing in some newly-elected lawmakers remotely while substituting the regal state Capitol with a cavernous NBA arena on a day the government ordered more than 33 million people to stay home because of a pandemic threatening to overwhelm hospitals.
State health officials on Monday ordered all of Southern California, a large swath of the Central Valley agricultural region and five counties around the San Francisco Bay Area to stay home because of dwindling capacities in hospital intensive care units.
But the state Constitution requires lawmakers to meet on the first Monday of December in even-numbered years to organize themselves for the upcoming session. Lawmakers gathered in person and indoors — something state officials have been begging people not to do. But their gatherings had the blessing of public health officials in Sacramento County, where the latest stay-at-home rules do not apply.
Lawmakers reelected Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins and Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon to new terms in their respective leadership positions, with both Democrats pledging to pass legislation addressing the state’s housing crisis while expanding high-speed internet access to more disadvantaged communities during the pandemic.
“If we’re gonna tell kids they can’t come to school, but we want them to learn at home, we have to make it possible for them to do so,” Rendon said, telling his colleagues in a speech that “it has to happen this session.”
Earlier this year, the Legislature passed a law banning evictions for people who have been unable to pay their rent since the pandemic began in March — but only if they can pay 25% of the rent they owe since September. Those protections expire Jan. 31.
Nearly 240,000 Californians are behind on their rent and will owe their landlords a combined $1.7 billion by the end of the year, according to a recent analysis by the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia. If California lets its protections expire in January, those bills will come due.
Assemblyman David Chiu, a Democrat from San Francisco, introduced a bill on Monday that would extend those protections through at least the end of 2021. While the protections would keep renters from being evicted, it wouldn’t forgive their debt. Chiu introduced another bill that aims to help renters pay off that debt, potentially with the help of a $26 billion one-time windfall lawmakers expect to have this year.
“We have not seen the tsunami of evictions we were all very concerned about because these protections are in place,” Chiu said. “We know without meaningful public funding, economic recovery will be that much harder for all of these folks.”
California Republicans focused their attention Monday on the state’s unemployment benefits crisis. Assemblywoman Marie Waldron, the Republican leader, said she will author a bill that puts a deadline on the state Employment Development Department to process new claims.
And after the state OK’d about $400 million in fraudulent unemployment benefits in the names of state inmates, Republican Assemblyman Phillip Chen said he will author a bill requiring the state to cross check unemployment claim applications with state and county correctional inmate data.
State officials have said a state law prevents prison officials from sharing inmates’ social security numbers to check against unemployment claims.
“We’re trying to bring attention to this fraudulent set of circumstances that is costing the taxpayer,” said Assemblyman Tom Lackey, a Republican from Palmdale, who said he will author legislation creating an advisory committee to oversee the state’s unemployment benefits agency.
Lawmakers won’t return to Sacramento until Jan. 4, when the work of legislating will begin in earnest. But Monday was the first day lawmakers could introduce new bills, offering a glimpse of what they hope to accomplish next year. But Democratic leaders, who enjoy super majorities in both chambers, said they would continue to emphasize the same themes.
“Housing will be back, emergency preparedness and wildfire response will be back, efforts to end the harm of 400 years of systemic racism will be back,” Atkins told her colleagues during a floor speech.
Several bills that failed to pass last session have returned, including high-profile measures from state Sen. Nancy Skinner to make some disciplinary records for police officers available to the public and from Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez to ban police from using projectiles, chemical agents or tear gas to break up peaceful protests.
Last month, a group of organizations representing police chiefs and officers proposed requiring prospective officers complete some college courses to prepare them for the work of modern policing.
But Monday, Assemblyman Reggie Jones-Sawyer introduced a proposal that would go much further than that by requiring prospective officers to either have a bachelor’s degree or be at least 25 years old.
Jones-Sawyer pointed to research that says people’s brains do not fully develop until age 25 — an argument usually used for sentencing reform. But he says the same logic should be applied to police officers who often must make life or death decisions in a split second.
“It’s really about having the maturity,” Jones-Sawyer said. “Especially when talking about life and death situations, you really need the best trained individuals out there on the street.”