California dispatch: Newsom proposes budget blueprint to address ‘existential threats’

JURIST is launching a new series of dispatches from major US states written by JURIST correspondents “on the ground” in those jurisdictions. JURIST Operations Director Ram Eachambadi files this report from Los Angeles.

Earlier this month, Governor Gavin Newsom proposed California’s highly ambitious 2022-23 state budget proposal. Titled “The California Blueprint,” the proposed budget aims to address the state’s “greatest existential threats” including the COVID-19 pandemic, climate change, the homelessness crisis, widening inequality and rising crime.

Granted, COVID-19 is not a unique problem that California alone faces and Newsom has consistently been commended by experts, scholars, academics, and even President Joe Biden for his management of the state during the crisis. However, while California prides itself on its management of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has essentially been second to none in the nation, the virus nonetheless continues to cast a shadow over the state’s progress.

As such, Newsom’s proposal includes a $2.7 billion emergency response package to ramp-up vaccines, boosters, statewide testing, protect frontline workers, increase medical personnel to address staff shortages during surges, and combat misinformation. Health advocates, state and local officials and other state leaders have already overwhelmingly expressed support for the governor’s plans, with California Medical Association President Robert Wailes applauding Newsom’s leadership and welcoming the emergency response package “at a critical time as cases of the Omicron variant surge nationwide”

With this package, Newsom hopes to “protect Californians by fighting COVID with science, with a focus on keeping our schools open and the economy moving.” Indeed, California has shifted its strategy since July and resisted shutting down schools, businesses, gyms, hair and nail sons, amusement parks, and restaurants even as the Omicron variant spread through the state. Instead, the state has focused on strict masking, vaccination and distancing requirements, and enforcement of those requirements while people have begun vacationing with their masks and vaccination cards handy.

As a matter of fact, while the “other CA” [Canada] up north has once again started shutting down gyms, bars and restaurants since December, I personally have not been forced to stop going to gyms, and have eaten at restaurants, attended a theatrical event (finally watched Hamilton) and have ventured outside the city. The only requirements—be vaccinated and show evidence of the same, and wear a mask. Just so I am clear, yes—I do wear a mask while working out at the gym as do the others at Orange Theory Fitness and we are all vaccinated.

Thus, while California takes the pandemic seriously, the governor no longer seems to believe that shutting down everything is the right or economically sound response; particularly since a combination of vaccination, distancing and masking seems to be working. That is not to say that the governor will not consider shutting down if things become severe, but we are nowhere near that point in California this time around.

However, climate change and homelessness are a different story. While these are not unique to California either, the severity of these issues is in fact somewhat unique to California. As I noted in my previous report, the homelessness crisis in California has become worse over the years and was a primary issue on the minds of Californians who were still undecided on whether to vote in the September gubernatorial recall at all. Newsom’s primary opponent in the recall, Larry Elder of the GOP, called the governor out on this very issue claiming that Newsom had already broken his promise to the city of San Francisco as its Mayor to end the homelessness crisis.

Per 2020 estimates, there are approximately 170,000 homeless individuals on any given night in California, of which approximately 66,000 are in Los Angeles County and 41,000 in the city alone. Many, as a consequence of their homelessness, suffer from severe mental health issues and substance abuse problems.

Rampant Homelessness and the mental illness that accompany it in turn leads to a rise in crime. In fact, such a mental state is highly likely to be the cause of unprovoked random attacks on residents in the downtown areas of Los Angeles. One of my brother’s coworkers was himself assaulted a few months ago by a homeless individual near his workplace in the downtown area of Los Angeles for unknown reasons. Best I know, he did not suffer serious injuries but was quite shaken by the incident.

As we reported back in September, Newsom signed a number of bills as part of a 31-bill housing agenda, to address the state’s homelessness crisis, housing shortage and climate change. This proposal adds $2 billion for mental health housing and services and clearing encampments, and hopes to help vulnerable individuals “get off our streets and get the mental health [and other] treatment they need.” These new investments expand on last year’s $12 billion package, and looks to create 55,000 new housing units and treatment slots for people exiting homelessness.

During a visit to a homeless encampment in San Diego last week, Newsom highlighted the state government’s partnership with the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) and various local government and nonprofit organizations to reach out to people living in encampments and provide placements and “wraparound supportive services.”

Homelessness does not arise out of thin air and oftentimes income inequality and rising cost of living are contributing factors. Newsom’s budget proposal includes a plan to address these issues as well. Specifically, the governor’s Blueprint will: make California the first state in the nation to offer universal access to healthcare coverage for all state residents, regardless of immigration status; create more housing with $2 billion in new grants and tax credits; invest in child care and education by adding thousands of child care slots, increase access to before, after and summer school programs, and accelerate efforts toward achieving free universal pre-kindergarten; and invest more in small businesses by cutting red tape, waiving fees and “providing hundreds of millions in grants and tax breaks to small businesses suffering from the pandemic.”

Additionally Newsom announced last week that the state is continuing to help people facing severe economic hardship caused by the pandemic by keeping them in stable housing. Last year, Newsom rapidly launched a federally-funded emergency rental assistance program and distributed $1.7 billion to over 147,000 low-income households to date. The program, lauded as one of the most successful in the nation, helps ensure that vulnerable Californians pay off their rental debt and avoid eviction. With these efforts, Newsom hopes to mitigate the impact of rising costs and ultimately also reduce homelessness.

Crime has risen in California independent of the homelessness crisis, which is only a small contributing factor. Specifically, organized retail crime and the so-called “smash and grab” robberies at high-end stores in California have been making headlines nationwide, while homicides have increased by 31% and car thefts by 20%. Not surprisingly, political conservatives jumped at the opportunity to blame these incidents on progressive policies and criminal justice reform.

Whatever the reason for the rise in these crimes, the governor’s Blueprint addresses these matters as well. Among other things, Newsom’s proposal includes $255 million in grants to local law enforcement and small businesses, creates a new “Smash and Grab” enforcement unit, and creates a new statewide team of investigators and prosecutors to bring the perpetrators to justice. The Blueprint also creates a new statewide gun buyback program, and includes a plan hold the gun industry accountable with new legislation and intercept drugs at the border.

Finally, no conversation about California is complete without a discussion on climate change. While California is a deep blue state with environmentally friendly policies, it is also a region severely impacted by climate change. In fact, one might say that western North America in general has borne the brunt of climate change disasters such as droughts, record breaking heat and cold temperatures going as far north as at least British Columbia, and wildfires including the Colorado wildfires last month.

Alas, Newsom cannot make policies for Colorado and British Columbia even though the latter is still a “CA” and he must therefore be content with making sound climate change policies for California. Indeed, the governor has not let the climate change disasters of 2021 go unnoticed and he views all of the issues noted above such as lack of affordable housing, homelessness, and climate change as interrelated. In Newsom’s own words, “unaffordable housing leads to hours-long car commutes… creating denser housing closer to major employment hubs is critical to limiting California’s greenhouse gas emissions.”

As such, the California Blueprint commits an another $2.6 billion on top of $6.7 billion already committed last year toward fighting wildfires and tackling the drought. Additionally, it includes up to $10 billion in investments for climate-friendly clean transit projects with an aim to accelerate the state’s transition to zero-emission vehicles, including trucks, public transit buses and trains, and school bus fleet. The governor hopes that these investments:

will deliver safer, faster and greener transportation options connecting communities across the state while creating thousands of jobs and tackling our largest source of harmful pollution and emissions…With California on the frontlines of the intensifying climate crisis, the state is committed to building a clean transportation future that protects the health of our communities, environment and economy.

While California has certainly amassed a significant budget surplus since Jerry Brown’s most recent reign as governor, which will certainly help Newsom, the Blueprint, as observed from the details above, is enormous and highly ambitious. Newsom may or may not be able to accomplish all that he has set out to accomplish here but as one wise political commentator pointed out “you win some and you Newsom.”