California, like the rest of country, is slowly opening cities and counties after more than two months of shelter-in-place and stay-at-home orders. California Governor Gavin Newsom has been the unequivocal face of the pandemic response.
As the state legislature prepares to vote on a trimmed-down budget in June, the governor’s leading man role governing by executive order during the coronavirus pandemic may have turned the legislature against him.
Data from the Council of State Governments shows that California was issued 52 executive orders.
Many of Newsom’s executive orders are now being more heavily scrutinized, especially those dealing with voting by mail, paid sick leave, and government transparency. These ideas would usually be drawn out and debated for months in the state legislature through the legislative process.
Instead, many contentious issues, or at least those worth legislative hearings, floor debates, and public discussion, were implemented with the signature of a pen (more like the click of an email).
Of all the governor’s actions, none has drawn more scrutiny than the Newsom deal with a Chinese company for N-95 face masks. The questionable $1 billion contract with Chinese firm BYD was announced on MSNBC and showered with rave reviews. But, the facemask deal has drummed up controversy since BYD missed the first delivery date at the end of April.
Another wrinkle that recently came to light is that federal regulators said the masks were rejected, not delayed, because they didn’t meet U.S. standards.
State Senator Holly Mitchell asked for the full details of the contract and regular updates about facemask and personal protective equipment (PPE) deliveries. The Los Angeles Times got access too, after being denied by the administration previously for legal reasons.
As Politico notes, concern over Newsom’s unchecked actions are coming from both sides of the aisle.
Assemblymember Jim Wood, a Democrat from Santa Rosa, California, said “We have not been engaged, and we have been trying to engage,” regarding the $1 billion BYD deal. Wood also said that lawmakers often heard from the Newsom administration minutes before an executive order was released publicly. Other members of the state legislature aren’t waiting for Newsom to come calling. Assemblymember Kevin Kiley (R-Roseville) and Assemblymember James Gallagher (R-Yuba City), introduced legislation to limit Newsom’s unchecked emergency powers. Kiley and Gallagher note that Newsom’s executive orders have changed an estimated 200 state laws.
Gallagher also recently led a coalition of lawmakers who asked Newsom to amend his statewide order for personal care businesses. Gallagher and several lawmakers are trying to get gyms, fitness studios, salons, and recreational facilities back open as long as they follow the prescribed guidelines.
A seasoned politician like Newsom, who cut his teeth under one of the best political minds, former Assembly speaker and San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown, should know better than to push the legislature to the side.
As a former staffer in the California State Legislature, I can assume with a fair amount of confidence that no lawmaker was happy about Newsom being a one-man show while they sat on the sidelines for almost two months. The governor’s daily briefings beamed his calm, prepared, and photographic recall of statistics into Californians’ Facebook feeds.
Lawmakers are competing for airtime, media attention, and policy wins to share with their constituents, and it does not bode well when the governor soaks up all the limelight. It is safe to say that negotiations between the governor and legislature won’t be the walk in the park they might have been just a few months ago. Look for lawmakers will use the governor’s go it alone strategy for any leverage or talking points for their proposals.
Californians don’t seem to mind, though. Newsom got a whopping 70 percent support in a May 1, 2020 UC Berkeley poll.
Governor Jerry Brown had very clear words before Newsom took office way back in 2019, “Don’t screw it up.” Brown, whose second stint as California governor lasted nearly a decade, was a media hermit, but a clear communicator with state lawmakers. Since Brown ensconced the media, lawmakers often benefited with more exposure to lead on important issues.
More than 20 years ago, former Governor Gray Davis famously said it was the job of the legislature to implement his vision. We all know how that worked out for Davis.
There is a famous African proverb that says if you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together. The governor went fast, and he went alone. He had to do some of it for public safety, but we’ve all witnessed the demise of the balance of powers and the legislative process on the federal level.
Executive orders are the gateway drug to unproductive lawmaking and political stalemates, and California is in the middle of its first big experiment in governing by executive decree.
If proverbs aren’t your thing, take a look at the non-partisan Legislative Analyst’s Office comments on Newsom’s May 2020 budget revise, “In a number of areas across the budget, the Governor makes proposals that raise serious concerns about the Legislature’s role in future decisions. We are very troubled by the degree of authority that the administration is requesting that lawmakers delegate. We urge the Legislature to resolutely guard its constitutional role and authority.”
Evan Harris is the media relations and outreach manager for PRI.