PD Editorial: Don’t give Newsom another blank coronavirus check
As the state enters the next stage of the COVID-19 pandemic, legislative oversight must temper unilateral executive authority. The Legislature should reassert its prerogative by rejecting Gov. Gavin Newsom’s request for a $2.9 billion blank coronavirus check.
Newsom wants the money for coronavirus-related expenses. Lawmakers already let him spend $1 billion largely unsupervised.
The governor argues that he needs unfettered access to the money in case he must quickly address new COVID-19 challenges. If there’s a second wave of infection later this year, for example, the governor might need to pay for equipment, medicine or public services, and he might not have time to wait for legislative approval.
That’s a lot of mights.
Many lawmakers, including Newsom’s fellow Democrats, aren’t so keen on handing over more money without strings attached. Newsom only got the first billion because the Legislature had to shut down under emergency social distancing rules. Now that lawmakers are back in Sacramento, they can work with the governor to direct funds where they are needed on short notice.
That is, after all, how America’s representative democracy is supposed to function. State government, like the federal government, has three branches — executive, legislative and judicial. Each serves as a check and balance on the other two.
The governor has had a lot of latitude during the initial emergency, but that mustn’t continue indefinitely.
There’s good reason to want greater oversight of Newsom’s spending, too. During the first weeks of the virus arriving in California, he made smart decisions about shutting things down based on expert health advice.
Other decisions, at least in retrospect, raise some eyebrows. The governor spent $26 million to set up sites to handle a projected surge in coronavirus patients. Those spaces at medical centers and even in the Sacramento Kings’ former basketball arena were on standby. The patients never fully materialized. All those millions funded treatment for only 426 people.
The same story played out with emergency housing for California’s homeless residents. The state leased about 15,000 hotel and motel rooms to provide a place they could isolate and not spread the virus on the streets. Barely half of them were ever used. That program, called Project Roomkey, at least was mostly funded by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
And then there were the dubious deals for face masks and other personal protective equipment that fell through, was never delivered or required rapid refunds before the state was scammed out of millions. Newsom resisted sharing details about many of the deals with the public and lawmakers.
At the time, most of those decisions made sense. Better to have had the beds for patients and not need them than not have them and watch Californians die for lack of care. But as the state talks about spending billions more, lawmakers can represent the interests of their districts and serve as an important check on the governor’s deals and plans. Many lawmakers have deep expertise in health care policy and programs, and the governor could benefit from working with them.
Lawmakers should set aside money for COVID-19 relief and related programs, but Newsom shouldn’t get to decide how to spend it without input and oversight from the Legislature.
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