California Republicans Take Aim at Emergency Powers Wielded by Newsom

Two Republican Assembly members who say California Governor Gavin Newsom has gone way too far with his pandemic powers are introducing a bill they say will rein him in.

Screenshot of California Gov. Gavin Newsom during his daily coronavirus press briefing on May 11, 2020.

(CN) — A pair of Republican lawmakers in California say they’re prepping a bill aimed at restricting the unprecedented power wielded by Governor Gavin Newsom during the Covid-19 health emergency. 

The bill by Assemblymen James Gallagher, R-Yuba City, and Kevin Kiley, R-Rocklin, seeks to end Newsom’s emergency powers by enacting a resolution that overturns the state’s declaration of emergency in effect since Newsom signed it on March 4. 

“This resolution is meant to restore a proper balance between the legislative and executive branches,” said Kiley. “To the extent the governor retains extraordinary powers, they should be limited in scope in coordination with the Legislature, which has authority to terminate those powers altogether.”

Joshua Hoover, a member of Kiley’s office, told Courthouse News the bill will be introduced later this week. How much traction it gets remains to be seen.

The fact that two Republicans are introducing it into a legislative body so thoroughly dominated by Democrats would typically indicate a short shelf life. But even Democrats have begun to bristle under the extraordinary authority wielded by the executive branch during the Covid-19 pandemic. 

On Tuesday, Holly Mitchell, D-Los Angeles, said the governor’s proposed budget — including a provision that frees up the executive branch to spend about $3 billion on personal protective equipment — cuts the Legislature out of a say on how the money is spent. 

But Kiley and Gallagher’s bill is less concerned with contracts to buy medical equipment used in the fight against the disease and more with restoring the Legislature role in making decisions pertaining to the state. 

They note Newsom has issued 39 executive orders since March 4, when the Legislature voted unanimously to grant the governor sweeping emergency powers including the ability to spend $1.1 billion in emergency funds. 

“We must take action to restore representative, constitutional government,” Gallagher said. “The governor has clearly overstepped his authority, from arbitrarily changing state laws to using state agencies to threaten small business outside of their legal jurisdiction, to spending money outside the scope of legislative authorization.”

Of particular concern for the two lawmakers are two executive orders — one which mandates voting by mail statewide and the other that overhauls workers’ compensation rules. Some lawmakers have questioned whether the governor has the authority to change electoral rules during a state of emergency for an election still six months away. 

Hoover said that both lawmakers are still deeply concerned about the presence of Covid-19 in California, but said rescinding the emergency declaration is an important legal move that restores power to the Legislature and to local governments that have varying degrees of infection rates in their respective communities. 

“I think it has gone beyond what that original state of emergency was intended to do,” Hoover said. 

Since the emergency declaration, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have carped that Newsom has not kept them apprised of spending decisions, particularly as it related to spending on emergency medical supplies. 

Newsom has vociferously defended the contracts, noting how difficult the market was in March and April when the pandemic was at its height and governments all over the world were competing to procure equipment for their health care workers. 

“Let’s not develop amnesia about what it was like in those days,” Newsom said at a recent press conference. 

But Republican lawmakers can point to a recent analysis by the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office that recommended the Legislature take back some of its constitutional authority as the pitch of the emergency wanes. 

“We are very troubled by the degree of authority that the administration is requesting that lawmakers delegate,” the LAO wrote in a report released Sunday. “We urge the Legislature to resolutely guard its constitutional role and authority.”

For Kiley and Gallagher, their bill amounts to a reassertion of legislative authority. 

“The Emergency Services Act was designed to grant extraordinary powers to a governor under conditions of extreme peril,” Kiley said. “It was not meant to give a single person the ability to remake all of California law indefinitely.”

It remains to be seen whether there is bipartisan consensus for when and how the Legislature is to claw back its authority and restore its power. 

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