Despite hopes for a fresh start to 2021, the California Capitol remains mired in the issues of 2020. COVID-19 continues spreading across the state regardless of what limitations are in place, the Legislature remains working as remotely as possible – only coming to the Capitol for necessary hearings and Floor Sessions, and politics – both internal and external – still grip elected officials even with the election behind us.
The most important and pressing issue for the Governor and Legislature is of course responding to the persistent spread of COVID-19. Just this week Governor Newsom surprised many (including legislators) by lifting the statewide Stay At Home order and returning to the color tiered system, with much of the state in the “Purple” tier. This change allows restaurants, salons and some other businesses to reopen, but significant restrictions remain. The slow delivery of vaccinations remains an enormous frustration for all Californians, including the Governor and elected officials. For months, numerous task forces, working groups and stakeholders discussed the most equitable and appropriate way to distribute vaccines as they became available, wanting to ensure those most at risk and vulnerable would receive doses first. However, it has recently become apparent that prioritizing people based on occupation was going to be far too slow. This led the Administration to change to an age-based prioritization system. The state hopes this will begin to speed up vaccinations.
The State Constitution requires the Governor to propose a Budget to the Legislature by January 10 of each year, with a final budget needing to be signed by June 15. This year’s proposed budget focuses on COVID-19 response and recovery, education funding, homelessness and renter protection, and climate change. This year’s proposed budget is different than some in the past in that it calls for an accelerated passage of some items. The Governor would like to spend some money ahead of schedule, namely federal dollars that have been given to the state for renter support, money toward wildfire prevention projects, and some education funding to help schools reopen.
Included in this year’s proposal is also a call-out to CEQA. Regarding the state’s efforts to build more homeless shelters through the Project Roomkey program, last year’s budget included a narrow CEQA exemption for certain of such projects. This year’s proposal hints as doing the same and exploring other narrow exemptions to expediate homeless shelters and affordable housing.
With regards to the Legislature, the annual bill introduction deadline is set for February 19. While legislators are allowed to introduce bills before that date, introductions this year have been slow in large part due to legislators spending very little time in the Capitol and having to meet with staff over Zoom. Several CEQA-related bills have been introduced thus far, but all are reintroductions of bills that failed last year. Senate Pro Tem Atkins has reintroduced her bill to provide ministerial approval, and thus a CEQA exemption, for all duplexes and urban lot splits in urban areas. She has also reintroduced her bill to recraft the AB 900 program, which provides expedited review under CEQA to certain environmental leadership projects. Finally, Senator Wiener has again introduced his bill to promote denser housing. This version would provide a CEQA exemption for cities to update their zoning to allow for up to ten units per lot in urban areas. As always, time will tell if these bills will cross the finish line after going through the eight-month legislative process.