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California Legislature Reconvenes Amid COVID-19 Surge

The start of California’s new two-year legislative session on Monday looked unlike anything before it.

For one, members of the state Assembly took the oath of office not in their Capitol chamber, but a few blocks away on the floor of the cavernous Sacramento Kings basketball arena — after everyone had been tested for COVID-19.

The state Senate, meanwhile, did meet at the state Capitol as usual, but with a beefed up air filtration system and strict rules banning visitors. Only 15 of the 20 senators being sworn in were actually on the chamber floor. Two others were sworn in via Zoom, while three were still making arrangements. All in-person attendees were separated by plexiglass shields and wore masks.

Lawmakers gathered indoors to carry out what they call their “essential” constitutional duty on the same day that more than 33 million Californians were ordered to stay home because of a surge of new coronavirus cases.

“When our constituents are delaying wedding and graduations and other important life events, the California state Senate understands and will gladly take a pass on some of the pomp and circumstance that we would normally enjoy,” state Sen. Toni Atkins, D-San Diego, said shortly after being reelected as the Senate’s president pro tempore.

Monday’s meetings are mostly for organizing purposes and swearing in lawmakers who were elected last month — the regular legislative sessions begin next month. But it’s also the first day for lawmakers to file legislation, offering a glimpse of what the Democratic-dominated Legislature plans to tackle in the new year.

Atkins said dealing with the coronavirus pandemic is a top priority.

“In the coming year, the Senate will continue to focus on COVID-19, on economic relief and recovery and on addressing chronic challenges that have been exacerbated by this crisis,” she said.

Those challenges include police reform, expanded access to broadband internet and emergency preparedness. Atkins said she also plans to, once again, put forward a package of affordable housing legislation. Several housing-related bills, including one introduced by Atkins, were unsuccessful during the last session.

“Affordable housing has been a crisis in California actually for years, and it’s been made even worse in every part of our state by COVID-19,” she said. “So housing will be back.”

The Assembly on Monday reelected Anthony Rendon, D-Lakewood, for another term as speaker over Republican leader Marie Waldron of Escondido. Rendon said the Assembly must pass laws to provide more high-speed internet access to residents.

“It has to happen this session,” he said, noting that the pandemic has shone a spotlight on the many needs of underserved Californians.

“We’ve seen a need to protect people in dire circumstances from being evicted. We’ve seen a need to provide greater unemployment benefits in crisis situations,” he said. “We’ve seen an upsurge in racial tensions and bigotry as segments of our population are unfairly singled out and ignorantly blamed for starting or spreading the virus.”

Rendon said the incoming Biden administration will be good for California and that it will be remarkable to have Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, who has represented California in the U.S. Senate, advocating for the state.

One looming deadline for lawmakers is Jan. 31, when eviction protections expire for tenants who have been unable to pay their rent because of the economic fallout from the pandemic.

Earlier this year, lawmakers passed a law allowing tenants to stay in their homes through at least Jan. 31, but only if tenants could pay at least 25% of rent owed since Sept. 1.

Assemblyman David Chiu, D-San Francisco, said he will introduce a bill on Monday that would extend those protections through Dec. 31 of next year.

“We are again staring down an eviction cliff that could leave millions homeless in the middle of a deadly pandemic,” Chiu said in a statement. “We must keep Californians housed and look toward providing relief to struggling renters and landlords.”

Republicans said they will push bills to tackle the state’s struggles to process unemployment benefits for millions of people who have lost their jobs because of the pandemic. Assemblywoman Marie Waldron, the Republican leader from Escondido, said she will author a bill that puts a deadline on the state Employment Development Department to process new claims.

And Assemblyman Phillip Chen, R-Diamond Bar, said he will author a bill requiring the state to cross check unemployment claim applications with state and county correctional inmate data. That follows revelations that the state OK’d about $400 million in fraudulent unemployment benefits in the names of state inmates.

Other potential bills include a proposal from Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, D-San Diego, to require the Employment Development Department to offer the option of receiving unemployment benefits via direct deposit instead of from debit cards in a bid to reduce fraud.

Democratic state Sen. Lena Gonzalez of Long Beach said she will introduce a bill to spend $1 billion to install high-speed internet access for low-income, rural and minority communities.

“This is a crisis for students and the education community and a growing barrier to accessing health care for our most vulnerable populations,” she said.

The post includes additional reporting from the Associated Press’ Adam Beam.

Copyright 2020 KQED