California lawmakers gathered indoors on Monday to carry out what they call their “essential” constitutional duty on the same day the government ordered more than 33 million people to stay home because of a surge of new coronavirus cases.
The organizational session happened on the same day a new stay-at-home order took effect for Southern California, a large swath of the Central Valley agricultural region and five counties around the San Francisco Bay.
The new rules were triggered because of a dwindling capacity in the state’s intensive care units because California has averaged more than 17,000 new coronavirus cases daily over the past two weeks.
The Senate and Assembly met indoors at noon on Monday, both with the blessing of Sacramento County public health officials. The new stay-at-home order does not apply to Sacramento or its surrounding counties because its available intensive care unit capacity is still above 15%.
The Senate met at the state Capitol as usual, but with a beefed-up air filtration system and strict rules banning visitors. The Assembly gathered at a cavernous NBA arena to make sure its 80 members have enough room to stay away from each other.
“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,” Sent. Toni Atkins said shortly after being re-elected as the Senate president pro tempore.
Monday’s meetings are mostly for organizing purposes and swearing in lawmakers who were elected last 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 the Senate will prioritize housing legislation, saying it’s been a crisis for years and has been made worse “in every part of our state by COVID-19.”
The Assembly re-elected Anthony Rendon for another term as speaker over Republican leader Marie Waldron. Rendon said the Assembly must pass laws to provide more high-speed internet access to residents.
“It has to happen this session,” he said.
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 coronavirus 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, a Democrat from San Francisco, said he will introduce a bill on Monday that would extend those protections through Dec. 31, 2021.
“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 towards providing relief to struggling renters and landlords.”
Republicans said they will 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, 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 an existing state law prevents prison officials from sharing inmates’ social security numbers to check against unemployment claims.
“This is unacceptable and we need to hold this system accountable,” Chen said in a statement.
Other potential bills include a proposal from Democratic Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez 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 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 healthcare for our most vulnerable populations,” Lena Gonzalez said.