When the Legislature reconvened in January, the stage was seemingly set for a year of sweeping action on California’s most vexing political issues, such as a chronic housing shortage, homelessness and an embarrassingly high poverty rate.

Democrats enjoyed overwhelming majorities in both legislative houses, the Democratic governor, Gavin Newsom, was fond of pursuing “big hairy, audacious goals” in contrast with cautious predecessor Jerry Brown, and the state’s roaring economy was pouring billions of extra dollars into the state treasury.

However, the most telling fact about the 2020 legislative session, which drew to a fitful close Monday night, is the long list of issues that either didn’t get addressed or received just token attention, including those stemming from more recent traumatic events.

The COVID-19 pandemic, the deep economic recession it spawned, terribly destructive wildfires and the furor over the suffocation death of a Black man, George Floyd,with a Minneapolis policeman’s knee on his neck changed the political narrative in mid-session. However, the Legislature didn’t respond to them any more satisfactorily than it did to older issues.

After COVID-19 erupted in March, the Legislature went on a two-month hiatus, content to allow Newsom to manage things under emergency decrees. But even after lawmakers returned to Sacramento, they fell into a defensive mode, adopting stopgap measures such as a debt-heavy state budget in June and a temporary, partial renter relief bill on the last night.

Bolder moves were proposed, such as a $100 billion economic stimulus package, raising income taxes on the wealthiest Californians, imposing a tax on their wealth, overhauling the economics of rental housing and home ownership, ending single-family zoning to allow more multi-family housing, and stripping violent cops of their legal status.

Some were justified, such as taking away the certification of miscreant cops, and some were outlandish and unworkable, such as a wealth tax. But all were shunted aside as legislative leaders – and Newsom – opted for risk-avoidance and hope that Democrat Joe Biden will unseat Republican President Donald Trump in November and then provide California with many billions of dollars to buy its way out of difficulty.

That hope was particularly evident in the half-a-loaf rent relief bill passed in the last minutes of the session and immediately signed by Newsom. It protects tenants who attest that they lost income due to COVID-19’s economic shutdown from eviction, as long as they pay at least 25% of their rent. But unpaid rent will still accumulate and evictions could resume early next year.

Repeatedly, as legislators debated the bill, they expressed hope that a Biden administration would offer new cash relief to the unemployed, allowing them to fully pay their rents. Newsom called it “just a bridge to a more permanent solution once the federal government finally recognizes its role in stabilizing the housing market.”What happens if Biden loses, or a newly re-elected Trump doesn’t come through? There is no Plan B on the table.

Nor is there any Plan B for a state budget leaking red ink, for a housing shortage that pandemic has worsened, for supporting three million unemployed workers and their families, for armoring California against wildfires – or, finally, for stopping the spread of COVID-19 if Newsom’s latest management scheme fails.

The most sobering revelation of this annus horribilis of 2020 is that California is really not the globally powerful, semi-independent nation-state that Newsom had been fond of boasting.

When disaster struck California, its economic and political limitations were laid bare, compelling Newsom and other politicians to beg Washington for help. And they still are. 


 

CalMatters is a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s state Capitol works and why it matters. For more stories by Dan Walters, go to calmatters.org/commentary.

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