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As Lawmakers Reconvene, Not Everyone Agrees On COVID-Only Agenda

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SACRAMENTO — California lawmakers return to the Capitol this week to start what they describe as vital however painful negotiations to maintain the state operating and redirect dwindling funds to the pricey coronavirus pandemic.

Leaders of the state Senate and Assembly have requested them to pursue solely COVID-related or “essential” payments.

But many legislators say they aren’t letting go of their pre-COVID agendas. They’re pushing forward with measures to tax soda, ban flavored tobacco merchandise, reform psychological well being care and broaden public insurance coverage to undocumented immigrants age 65 and up, arguing that the virus’s devastating attain underscores simply how badly California must bolster its public well being system.

“This pandemic has highlighted all the gaps, all the disparities in our California health care system,” state Sen. Maria Elena Durazo (D-Los Angeles) stated at a latest digital city corridor assembly with well being care advocates. Durazo is the writer of one of many payments to broaden California’s Medicaid program to older unauthorized immigrants.

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After having fun with years of wholesome funds surpluses, California is dealing with the prospect of a serious shortfall — reflecting the double whammy of the unprecedented financial shutdown and the pouring of public funds into the pandemic response. It’s unclear precisely how massive a shortfall, partly as a result of the state gave taxpayers till July 15 to file their revenue taxes. One estimate by Legislative Analyst Gabriel Petek places the deficit at $35 billion for the 2020-21 fiscal yr.

That’s a stark distinction to the $5.6 billion budget surplus Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom had projected at first of the yr, when he touted proposals to handle continual homelessness, cut back prescription drug costs and enhance investments in psychological well being remedy.

Those plans and different work on the Capitol got here to an abrupt halt in March when the coronavirus compelled the legislature to close down unexpectedly.

During the recess, Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins urged lawmakers in a memo to “put on pause” current payments and take up solely “the most pressing issues.”

“I have asked Senators to reconsider their priorities and reduce the number of bills they carry,” the San Diego Democrat wrote.

Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon, a Democrat from Lakewood, requested lawmakers in his home to deal with “essential” payments this yr, stated Katie Talbot, his spokesperson.

For payments that carry a price ticket, Assembly Budget Committee Chair Phil Ting (D-San Francisco) wrote in a memo, “we will no longer be able to consider new priorities and ideas from stakeholders, advocates and Members, with the exception of COVID-19 related costs, wildfire prevention, and homelessness funding.”

The Assembly reconvenes Monday and the Senate on May 11.

The governor will launch his revised 2020-21 state funds proposal on May 14. After that, the legislature has a couple of month to hammer out a last spending cope with Newsom’s administration.

Unlike in earlier recessions, the administration and lawmakers are speaking about well being care spending bumps somewhat than cuts due to the character of the COVID-19 disaster.

“When we had the fires, the voices of emergency folks were prominent in the budget discussions,” stated Leonor Ehling, govt director of the Center for California Studies at California State University-Sacramento, who spent 20 years working within the legislature. “Now what public health officials say about spending will have added weight.”

At a funds listening to in late April, a prime state Department of Finance official informed lawmakers that investments in well being “are certainly at the top of our list.”

“We’re trying to figure out how to put out a revised budget that will have cuts, but making sure that we reduce the impact and minimize it on the most vulnerable people,” stated Vivek Viswanathan, the division’s chief deputy director for funds.

But what falls underneath the umbrella of “COVID-related” seems to be broad and subjective. And even advocates for sure points aren’t at all times on the identical facet about whether or not to attend till subsequent yr or transfer ahead.

In particular funds hearings over the previous three weeks, lawmakers agreed the state should safe extra masks and different protecting gear — not only for front-line hospital staff but in addition for dentists, major care docs, grocery retailer staff and others who will likely be instrumental in reopening the financial system.

They need California to extend diagnostic testing for COVID-19, deploy 1000’s of contract tracers to trace down and monitor folks uncovered to COVID-19 sufferers, and guarantee there are protected quarantine areas for contaminated folks. Lawmakers from rural areas need the state to assist pay for his or her coronavirus prices, noting that federal funding went largely to city areas.

Other lawmakers are in search of hazard pay for some nursing dwelling staff, stipends for nursing college students, exemptions for hospitals from state seismic requirements and extra residency slots for medical college students.

“Hospitals are losing money. … Primary care doctors are dropping their visits,” stated Sen. Richard Pan (D-Sacramento), himself a pediatrician. “A lot of people are in a world of hurt right now.”

But some lawmakers say they intend to advocate for points that aren’t instantly associated to the disaster, points that in some instances have been debated within the legislature for years.

Assembly member Richard Bloom (D-Santa Monica) intends to push for a soda tax, though lawmakers have rejected soda taxes a number of occasions. Under the measure, proceeds from the tax would fund neighborhood well being packages.

Sen. Jerry Hill (D-San Mateo) needs to ban retail gross sales of flavored tobacco merchandise, that are standard with younger folks. He hopes his bill will resonate together with his colleagues, noting the World Health Organization has linked smoking to COVID-19.

“They’ve sounded the alarm that persons, if they use tobacco, if they smoke, if they vape, they’re at risk of suffering the worst and most deadly symptoms of COVID-19,” Hill stated. “To me, that’s significantly important in moving this legislation forward.”

Durazo, who’s carrying one of many measures to broaden Medicaid to older unauthorized immigrants, insists the legislature should act rapidly. She is framing it because the humane factor to do, and vital to assist stem the unfold of the COVID-19 virus.

California already provides full Medicaid advantages to income-eligible residents as much as age 26, no matter their immigration standing. Newsom has but to say whether or not he’ll assist spending $80.5 million within the subsequent fiscal yr to broaden this system — a price ticket that worries even some supporters of the thought.

“I am concerned about how our economy is going to come out of this pandemic,” stated Assembly member Joaquin Arambula (D-Fresno).

Ting, a key voice in well being care funding, echoed that sentiment. He stated some lawmakers are simply going to have to regulate to the monetary realities of the pandemic.

“We know there is no sector of the state left untouched by this pandemic,” he stated. “Our biggest challenge, unlike the federal government, is that we cannot deficit-spend. It limits our ability to do all the help that everyone is asking us to do.”

Use Our Content This story will be republished totally free (details).

This KHN story first printed on California Healthline, a service of the California Health Care Foundation.

Samantha Young: syoung@kff.org”>syoung@kff.org, @youngsamantha

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