The California Assembly met in an extraordinary session Tuesday to question Gov. Gavin Newsom’s administration about its plan to fill an estimated $54.3 billion budget deficit created by the effects of the coronavirus.
It marked the first time in 25 years that the Assembly gathered as a so-called “committee of the whole.”
Normally when the Assembly meets, no one is allowed to speak except lawmakers. But this time, lawmakers will hear testimony from Newsom administration officials and ask them questions.
Lawmakers gathered in the ornate Assembly chamber on Tuesday wearing masks and staying at least 6 feet (1.8 meters) away from each other.
“We must act in the face of limitations that surround us everywhere we look,” Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon said.
The state Legislature recessed on March 16 because of the coronavirus, its first unscheduled work stoppage in 158 years. Lawmakers missed nearly two months of work — time they would have normally spent vetting the governor’s spending proposal.
Since then, the state has been under a mandatory stay-at-home order that has closed businesses and caused more than 5 million people to file for unemployment benefits. State revenues have tanked, creating an estimated $54.3 billion budget deficit compared to the spending proposal Newsom first released in January.
When lawmakers returned to work earlier this month, they were handed a completely new budget that included billions in spending cuts to public education, health care and environmental protections.
Budget subcommittees usually hold up to a dozen public hearings to vet the governor’s proposals. This time, they each got one, maybe two meetings. It’s a process that Democratic Assemblyman David Chiu of San Francisco has called a “speed dating approach to the budget process.”
Rendon, a Democrat from Lakewood, said the compressed timeline is why he decided to call everyone together for a giant committee meeting on Tuesday.
“This kind of gives everybody an opportunity to get a bunch of information in the same room and also to kind of learn from one another,” he said. “If you’re asking a question and I’m hearing the answer, I learn from that.”
One of the lawmakers wanting to learn the most is Assembly Budget Committee chair Phil Ting. It’s his job to craft the Assembly’s version of the state budget each year. That means knowing how a majority of lawmakers will vote to write a bill that will pass.
Ting says it’s been a lot harder to do that this year because of physical distancing.
“Normally I can see my colleagues, get feedback. They can tell me to (my) face,” he said. “Now that we are just all in our offices and I don’t see them except for in committee, and usually then we are very far apart, it’s been difficult to get a clear sense of where everyone is at.”
The state Senate is also holding fewer budget hearings. The Senate Budget Committee plans to unveil its version of the budget on Thursday. Lawmakers from the Senate and Assembly must agree on a budget proposal by June 15. If they don’t, they will forfeit their salary.