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PD Editorial: Don’t let COVID-19 kill government oversight

State and federal governments are spending massive amounts of money to fight the coronavirus pandemic, but too much of it is being spent without sufficient oversight and accountability.

The lack of adequate public oversight is unconscionable. “Trust us” isn't an acceptable response from elected officials, usually executives operating with more authority than ever. The COVID-19 pandemic is an unprecedented situation, one that requires nimble decision- making, but it shouldn't be license for unchecked decision- making.

Quite the contrary, in fact. Now more than ever, Californians and all Americans must demand that their leaders reject the old lie that speedy action is incompatible with transparency and public oversight.

Gov. Gavin Newsom hasn't gotten that message yet. Despite the emergency powers granted to him, he has an obligation to work collaboratively with the Legislature and a duty to be transparent. Neither is happening. For example, Newsom has refused to share information about a $1 billion contract signed with the Chinese company BYD to furnish California with 200 million medical masks a month. At a minimum, lawmakers ought to be in the loop when so many tax dollars are being spent. The public should, too, for that matter. State agencies already have been paying inflated prices for masks, up to quadruple the normal cost, according to a Los Angeles Times review of other state contracting records.

Newsom needn't shoulder the burdens of leadership alone. Californians elect lawmakers who are ready to help in this moment of crisis.

“It's clear the administration is working with stakeholders, but not with the Legislature or the legislative staff,” Assemblyman Jim Wood, D-Santa Rosa, said during a budget oversight hearing last week. “I have a health committee staff that has over a hundred years of health policy experience, and we have not been engaged.”

Newsom's administration has predicted it will spend at least $7 billion to fight COVID-19. Those shouldn't be blank checks.

To be sure, challenges exist with active legislative oversight at a time like this, but they aren't insurmountable. Lawmakers, like the rest of us, shouldn't hang out with one another and risk spreading or contracting the coronavirus. That doesn't preclude them from turning to technology for help like the rest of us. Online meetings, streamed to the public and the press, should be the norm for lawmakers everywhere for the time being.

The federal government is struggling with safety and transparency, too. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has flipped and flopped on allowing proxy voting or other alternatives to hundreds of representatives gathering in one room. Meanwhile, President Donald Trump undercut oversight of the $2 trillion federal relief package by claiming he had the power to restrict what an inspector general could review. Trump then sacked the acting inspector general who was heading the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee set up by Congress.

So much for oversight. Trillions of federal dollars are flowing … somewhere. Examples of money intended for small businesses going to large publicly traded companies already made headlines.

These aren't simply turf battles between the executive and legislative branches. This is about accountability and transparency. Each branch of government should serve as a check and balance on the others. Americans shouldn't abandon that cornerstone of our democracy just because there's a pandemic making life more difficult.

You can send a letter to the editor at letters@pressdemocrat.com.

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