California Lawmakers Urge Newsom to Lift Curtain on Pandemic Spending Spree

From $150 million to get homeless Californians into hotel rooms during the coronavirus outbreak to a secret $1 billion deal with a Chinese automaker for masks and protective gear, California lawmakers again pressed the governor’s administration for details on how much is being spent and why.

The California Capitol building.

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) — California is in the process of spending $150 million to get tens of thousands homeless people off the street during the coronavirus pandemic, but officials reiterated Monday the state can’t force even those infected to accept shelter or medical care.

The admission came during the Legislature’s second round of questioning into how Governor Gavin Newsom and his administration have spent — and are planning to spend — billions to fight the pandemic.

The hypothetical question was asked by Assemblyman Jim Cooper, a former law enforcement officer, who pried into the state’s “Project Roomkey.” The program aims to make up to 15,000 rooms available to homeless people who have tested positive or were exposed to the novel coronavirus.

“If someone is homeless and diagnosed with Covid-19 and refuses to isolate in assigned housing, what is your plan?” asked Cooper, D-Sacramento.

Officials from the state Department of Finance acknowledged there is little the state can do to persuade homeless people to accept temporary hotel rooms that have already been paid for with taxpayer funds.

“Unfortunately we can’t force them to, you know, room in these places,” said Kris Cook of the California Department of Finance.

Cooper noted that “doesn’t really get to the root of the problem.”

The back-and-forth during the Assembly budget hearing illuminated the ongoing difficulties California faces as it tries to fix one of its most vexing problems during a global pandemic. 

Recent counts have pegged California’s homeless population at over 150,000, causing Newsom to dedicate the majority of his January State of the State address to housing and slowing homelessness. The issue remains heavy on Newsom’s mind, as earlier this month in a pandemic briefing he stated homelessness was the “crisis that predates the current crisis.”

So far, Newsom has dedicated $150 million to help counties accrue supplies and establish temporary shelters, trailers, hotels for the state’s most vulnerable. The goal is to keep the virus from spreading on the street and as of Saturday, more than 100 people at a San Francisco homeless shelter were confirmed positive for coronavirus, as well over 30 in Los Angeles County.

In his latest update, Newsom said 4,211 homeless have been sheltered under the program but added the state was partnering with Motel 6 to procure thousands of more rooms.

When pressed about the program Monday, Newsom’s administration noted it was largely relying on local agencies and nonprofits that have built relationships with the homeless to fill the expensive rooms.

 “It’s not going to be the state telling that individual they have to go into a hotel room,” said Marko Mijic with California’s Health and Human Services Agency. “It’s the people who that individual trusts because they are getting services from them at the local level.”

The homelessness discussion was part of the Legislature’s second attempt at shining light on Newsom’s pandemic response. Similar to last week’s Senate hearing, the Assembly committee also pressed into the state’s massive $1 billion deal with a Chinese automaker for masks. 

Newsom, a Democrat, earlier this month announced the deal for up to 200 million N95 and surgical masks on MSNBC, but contract specifics have yet to reach lawmakers or the public. The shrouding of the contract continues to irk lawmakers from both sides of the aisle.

Mark Ghilarducci, the governor’s director of emergency services, defended the secrecy by noting the worldwide demand and competition for masks and other personal protective equipment. He said it’s in the public’s interest to wait to reveal the contract until the supplies are actually secured.

“Releasing the contract at this point we believe jeopardizes the delivery of the very supplies that we actually need now,” Ghilarducci said.

Officials wouldn’t answer questions on the cost per mask but did say the state initiated discussions with BYD Auto for the deal intended to supply hospitals and essential employees with masks.   

“I would strongly encourage you as soon as possible to release the details,” said Assemblyman Vince Fong, R-Bakersfield.

Unlike the Senate oversight hearing, all 10 members on the Assembly committee appeared in person in front of a limited public audience. Some of the members were masked and their microphones were covered, while Newsom’s officials and the public testified remotely.

The meeting coincided with a rally held outside the capitol by Californians protesting the statewide shelter-in-place order.

Hundreds of mostly unmasked Californians of all ages convened in downtown Sacramento to openly stomp on the state and county’s physical-distancing orders. Honking from the cars creating an intentional traffic jam could be heard in the background as Department of Finance officials testified before the committee.

Back inside the capitol, lawmakers continued the daunting task of finding ways to craft a budget for the nation’s fifth largest economy during a pandemic. California in a matter of weeks has moved from the safety of a $17 billion surplus to the early throes of a downturn analysts predict could exceed the Great Recession.

Legislative Analyst Gabriel Petek testified it will be key for Newsom to be more transparent about current and future pandemic spending as he and the Legislature attempt to pass a budget by a June 15 deadline.

“This presents an opportunity for the state to shift its orientation from one of reaction to the public health crisis to a more proactive stance,” Petek said. “But in order for the Legislature to effectively partner with the administration, we believe the Legislature will require more detailed information.”

After hours of listening to officials mostly dodge questions about things like the cost of and deployment of masks, testing goals and loans to cover unemployment claims, the committee prodded the Newsom administration to come back to next  Monday’s oversight hearing more willing to share.

“I appreciate the governor’s moral leadership in addressing the needs of not just Californians but all Americans,” said Assemblyman Adam Gray, D-Merced. “But I’d like your commitment today, director [Ghilarducci], that we can count on getting that information a little bit quicker and more direct and more specific going forward.”

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