The California Legislature approved up to $1 billion in new spending on Monday to combat the coronavirus outbreak, then suspended their work for the next month to try and contain the illness.
It is believed to be the first unexpected work stoppage in the California Legislature in 158 years, according to Alex Vassar, an unofficial legislative historian at the California State Library. And it came on the heels of extraordinary bipartisanship, as Republicans and Democrats alike voted overwhelmingly to give Gov. Gavin Newsom broad authority to spend during the crisis without their oversight.
“It is a request to step away from our desks much earlier than we would like. The demands of public health require it,” Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon said.
The California Legislature has rarely closed. The Legislature did not miss meetings during either of the world wars or in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks. In 2001, when a semi-truck crashed into the Senate side of the Capitol, the Senate convened right on schedule about 12 hours later in the Assembly chambers. And last year, when a woman threw her own blood onto the floor of the state Senate in an act of protest on the session’s final day, lawmakers reconvened hours later in a committee room to finish their work.
The only time lawmakers did unexpectedly suspend their meetings was in 1862, when a flood consumed most of Sacramento and, legend has it, forced newly elected Gov. Leland Stanford to use a boat to attend his inauguration. Lawamkers missed a few days before reconvening in San Francisco to continue their work, according Vassar.
In 1919, during a flu pandemic, at least five lawmakers had symptoms and had to be quarantined. Leaders discussed whether lawmakers should stop meeting, but eventually decided to “disinfect the Capitol daily and to keep meeting,” Vassar said.
“It is an extremely rare occurrence for the Legislature to stop meeting during the regular session,” Vassar said.
Lawmakers agreed Monday to stay away until April 13. But legislative leaders in either chamber can decide to reconvene. And they can extend the recess if necessary.
“We will be prepared on a moment’s notice to return ton address any urgent action that we must take,” Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins said.
The legislation approved Monday gives Gov. Gavin Newsom $500 million to spend “for any item for any purpose” related to his March 4 declaration of emergency. In the future, Newsom could increase that spending by increments of $50 million -- but only if he tells lawmakers about it three days in advance. The spending is capped at $1 billion.
“By taking this action we are placing an extraordinary degree of trust in Gov. Gavin Newsom. However, these are extraordinary times,” said Republican Assemblyman Jay Obernolte.
A separate bill would make sure public schools that closed because of the outbreak don’t lose funding. It would also allocate $100 million to schools for “personal protective equipment” or to pay for “supplies and labor related to cleaning.”
State law bans lawmakers from voting on bills unless they have been available for public review for at least three days. But lawmakers can waive that law if the governor asks them to. Newsom did that on Monday.
“Today I write to you to state the obvious: we must rise to the challenge facing our state with every tool at our disposal and without a second of delay,” Newsom wrote in a letter to the Legislature. “We cannot hesitate to meet this moment.”
Lawmakers overwhelmingly voted to approve his request.
Lawmakers were in action on Monday while most other entities in California were closed. Sunday, Newsom urged everyone 65 and older to stay home. Presumably, that order included the 25 lawmakers in the state Legislature who are older than 65.
Assemblyman Jose Medina, 66, said he was already on a plane headed to Sacramento on Sunday when Newsom asked people 65 and older to stay home. He attended Monday’s Assembly session, saying he thought his constituents would “appreciate that we are still doing the work of the state of California.”
“It’s nothing that I would take lightly, and I think that most folks my age and older are taking it seriously,” said Medina, a Democrat who represents Riverside.
But 73-year-old Assemblyman Bill Quirk stayed home. He lives in a retirement community in the San Francisco Bay Area with his wife. While the two of them are healthy, many of their neighbors are not.
“If I were to bring home the coronavirus, 20 people could die, or maybe even 40,” Quirk said. “Some people think they are really important and they should always be working. And I can tell you I’m not so important that we can even risk one life here, period.”