Some California lawmakers are calling for a special session

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The close of the California legislative session left some lawmakers feeling unsatisfied by their inability to tackle major policy issues during a stop-and-go session marred by the pandemic.

Lawmakers recessed in March and April, returned to adopt a budget in June, and then reconvened to approve legislation by the Aug. 31 deadline.

California lawmakers worked until 1:30 a.m. Tuesday morning to close the session in Sacramento.

Legislative leaders had asked lawmakers in the spring to reduce the number of bills they were championing to two or three “priority bills.”

Late last week, through the weekend, and into early Tuesday morning, lawmakers were weighing a shrunken docket of legislation.

Some lawmakers asked California Gov. Gavin Newsom to convene a special session to take on some issues overshadowed by the pandemic.

The process left some ending the session with an air of unfinished business. Twenty lawmakers signed a letter penned by Assemblyman Kevin Kiley, R-Sacramento, asking California Gov. Gavin Newsom to call for a two-month special session.

“Last night several bills died a silent death when they couldn’t be shuttled to the Senate in time for the midnight deadline,” Kiley tweeted Tuesday. “This was after the Legislature recessed for 12 weeks, skipped floor sessions for several more, and even yesterday took lengthy lunch and dinner breaks.”

The governor has not responded to calls for a special session.

Newsom released a statement at the end of the session lauding lawmakers for passing a bill protecting tenants from eviction, housing 22,000 homeless people, providing tax relief to small businesses, accelerating bonds to stimulate growth and efforts to protect “the most vulnerable from a new, deadly disease” by expanding the state’s public health infrastructure.

“Even in the midst of a global pandemic and subsequent economic recession, historic wildfires, and the pain of persistent and systemic racism, state government advanced critical priorities that will help the people of this great state,” Newsom said.

He added that “the Legislature came together to pass a budget that funded key priorities — protecting key investments in wildfire protection and disaster response and targeting more than $5 billion in emergency aid to help kids most at risk of learning loss due to the COVID-19 pandemic. That balanced budget still carried forward a number of other priorities to help Californian families — such as the expanded Earned Income Tax Credit, expanded health care coverage and small business relief.

Lawmakers vacated the Capitol three times.

The first time came in March after California Gov. Gavin Newsom ordered a shutdown as COVID-19 began to spread rapidly in the U.S. The second was in July, after two members of the Assembly tested positive for the coronavirus.

The Senate was impacted last week after Sen. Brian Jones, R-Santee, who had attended in-person meetings with other senators, tested positive. Some Republican senators who had been exposed were required to attend meetings using video conferencing.

Though much has shifted from when Newsom declared the state’s housing crisis his top priority in his state of the state speech in January, housing remains a priority.

One of the bills approved by the Legislature, AB 3088, the COVID-19 Tenant Relief Act, extends protections for renters unemployed due to the pandemic from eviction. Proponents say that the bill protects California’s 17 million renters as large segments of the state’s economy remain closed or sluggish due to the pandemic.

The bill "will provide stability and relief for Californians as we continue to address the uncertainty surrounding the public health crisis," said Senate President pro Tempore Toni Atkins, D-San Diego.

The measure pushes out evictions to Feb. 1 as long as renters pay at least 25% of rent between Sept. 1 and Jan. 31. Unpaid rent converts to consumer debt and can't be used to evict tenants. Landlords would seek redress through small claims court after March 1.

The law was approved by two-thirds supermajorities in both houses, which meant it became law immediately when Newsom signed it Monday. A pause on California eviction court proceedings, put in place by the state Judicial Council, was set to expire Wednesday.

The act "will provide stability and relief for Californians as we continue to address the uncertainty surrounding the public health crisis," said Senate President pro Tempore Toni Atkins, D-San Diego. "This collaborative effort combines legal and financial protections for tenants and landlords, and most importantly, keeps Californians housed.

Sen. Anna Caballero, D-Salinas, who co-authored the bill, called it “a balanced approach and will serve as a bridge into the New Year.”

Sen. Steven Bradford, D-Gardena, also a co-author, said the effort was “one step forward in our path to recovery from COVID-19, and I’ll continue to fight for equitable and inclusive solutions.”

The California Chamber of Commerce and the California Apartment Association, which represents 50,000 owners and managers, had opposed the original legislation, but said the compromise bill gives apartment owners recourse against problem tenants.

Under AB 3088, landlords can again proceed with eviction cases against tenants who cause problems at the property, such as by causing nuisances or threatening their neighbors.

Rental property owners haven’t had this tool since the Judicial Council imposed its eviction moratorium on April 6. The bill also will allow owners to terminate the tenancies of renters who have the wherewithal to pay rent but refuse to do so.

To qualify for eviction protections under AB 3088, tenants must claim a COVID hardship by signing and returning a declaration. High-income tenants, those making 130% of the area median income, will have to provide documentation of their COVID-related hardship.

Lawmakers justified the bill, which only staves off evictions through the early part of next year, with the hope that Joe Biden will win the presidential election in November and provide more relief to citizens unemployed as a result of the pandemic enabling them to cover their rent.

It is “just a bridge to a more permanent solution once the federal government finally recognizes its role in stabilizing the housing market,” Newsom said.

Even as lawmakers were striving to tackle a pandemic-shrunken legislative agenda, the Legislative Analyst’s Office released a report that shows the state has a vastly improved cash position from what the state controller’s office forecast in April.

A position solid enough that the state probably will not need to issue tax revenue anticipation bonds to shore up cash flow in 2020-21, the LAO said.

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California State budgets State and local finance State of California Coronavirus State tax revenues Gavin Newsom