California lawmakers hold hearing about virus spending

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ADAM BEAM
Associated Press
SACRAMENTO (AP) — California lawmakers held their first oversight hearing on Thursday to examine how Gov. Gavin Newsom has spent more than $2 billion in taxpayer money to combat the coronavirus, with most participating via video conference in a hearing that tested the technological limits of public debate in an era of social distancing.
Just two senators attended the hearing in person, held in a large committee room in the state Capitol. Senate Budget and Fiscal Review Committee chairwoman Holly Mitchell wore a mask and conducted the hearing with a package of disinfectant wipes at her side.
The hearing was delayed by nearly an hour because the Senate’s website crashed as more than 10,000 people beyond what state officials had expected tried to watch the hearing.
Thursday’s committee meeting is the first legislative hearing since lawmakers recessed on March 16 because of the coronavirus, believed to be the first unscheduled work stoppage at the Capitol in 158 years.
Before leaving, lawmakers agreed to give Newsom up to $1 billion to spend fighting both the virus and the economic calamity it has caused. Newsom has spent $768.9 million of that money so far on things like hotel rooms for the homeless, loans to small businesses and cash for adults living in the country illegally who are not eligible for federal stimulus checks.
But he has also spent more than $1 billion from other state emergency funds, including $495 million for a contract with a Chinese company to produce up to 200 million masks per month.
Thursday, the Newsom administration told lawmakers they are expecting to spend $7 billion in coroanvirus-related expenses this year. That doesn’t include more money the state will need for Medicaid and other social safety net programs.
Meanwhile, the state’s revenues are expected to plummet. Legislative Analyst Gabriel Petek said the state’s unemployment numbers during the coroanvirus won’t be known until at least next month, but claims for unemployment benefits indicate somewhere between 12% and 15% of Californians have lost their jobs.
“The pace of job losses that we are seeing, caused by an abrupt halting of economic activity, make it clear the economy has entered a recession, and possibly a quite severe one,” he said.
The spending has been so frequent it’s been difficult for lawmakers to keep up. Mitchell, a Democrat from Los Angeles, wrote in a letter to the Newsom administration last week that it needs to be more transparent with lawmakers about the spending.
“Under normal circumstances, the Legislature would have had more time to deliberate an expenditure of this magnitude and would have been allowed to thoroughly vet the details of the contract before proceeding,” Mitchell wrote about the contract for the masks.
California has more than 27,600 confirmed cases and more than 950 deaths, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University.
For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia, and death.