The California state Capitol / Image via Shutterstock

Most members of San Diego’s Sacramento delegation served in local government – where constituent services and engagement with residents are bigger parts of the job – before taking on their state gigs.

But over the last month, with the Legislature out of session and residents impacted in all kinds of ways by the coronavirus pandemic, lawmakers have dedicated a much larger share of their time to working directly with people in their districts. And at a time when they’d normally be in the thick of advancing bills, they’re instead being forced to make big decisions about what measures – if any – they want to stick with this year.

It’s been a complete turnaround, a complete change. It’s a different world. … This pandemic has really made it so difficult for us to do our jobs,” Sen. Ben Hueso told me. “And primarily everyone has turned their offices into emergency response units.”

Hueso said that in addition to holding tele-town hall events, his office has been proactively reaching out to seniors who’ve given their contact information over the years to see if they can connect them with resources.

They’ve also begun examining which – if any – of the bills he’d planned to pursue this year will move forward when the Legislature reconvenes later this month. He said some of his existing bills are more relevant than ever amid the pandemic, but acknowledged he’ll need to let some bills go.

“We’ve had a hard time really scaling back our bills because a lot of the work that we’re doing is related to the coronavirus crisis or recovering from it. There are quite a few bills that we’ve been working on also for several years, it’s going to be hard to let go of those things,” Hueso said.

At the same time, he said, creating new laws is difficult and requires a tremendous amount of government accessibility and engagement with the public, “and right now I don’t think there’s a big appetite for that.”

Assemblyman Todd Gloria said constituent inquiries to his office have increased 20-fold since the pandemic began. He’s been doing tele-town hall events and answering questions on Facebook Live.

Gloria, who’s running for San Diego mayor, said he’s cut back his bill package too. “My primary focus right now is keeping Californians safe and healthy from COVID-19,” he wrote in an email. “After that, I will be keenly focused on getting San Diegans back to work and revitalizing our economy. I believe the state will have a role in that, and I intend to be tenacious in making sure San Diego gets the assistance it needs.”

Assemblywoman Tasha Boerner Horvath said in an email that she’s always tried to strike a strong balance between writing laws and constituent services.

“That said, my district office team now spends more time reacting to what folks in my district need now than proactively reaching out,” she wrote. She said local experts who normally advise her on bills are now discussing responses to the coronavirus and economic recovery efforts.

“Additionally, my Capitol team has partially shifted their time from legislation to help directly serve constituents calling for support on things like unemployment insurance,” she wrote.

Boerner Horvath said she’s already reduced her bill package and plans to focus mostly on responding to the pandemic, but that “there are some issues that are still important regardless of the pandemic, such as helping sexual assault victims receive justice.”

Sen. Brian Jones said in an email that Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins asked all senators to pare down their bill packages, “and I intend to do that. I do believe, however, the people’s government must continue to work even in a time of crisis.”

Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez said her office has reached out to tens of thousands of constituents via text messages, emails and postcards, and that an aggressive presence on social media has even led residents from around California to get in touch for help.

“Our phones do not stop ringing, and my staff is doing an incredible job at the impossible task of helping every person in need during this crisis,” she said.

Gonzalez told me she plans to amend an existing bill, AB 196, to ensure essential workers who contract COVID-19 can file workers’ compensation claims. She said other bills directly related to the pandemic are also in the works.

“I am also introducing legislation that will require large companies that have misclassified their workforce to pay into the Unemployment Insurance Fund and stop forcing law-abiding employers and taxpayers to subsidize the costs of their business. I have a bill that would prevent companies that closed without issuing the last paycheck to their workers from opening up under a new name to avoid wage theft claims. Finally, I am joint authoring legislation to ensure farmworkers have access to expanded paid sick leave and a bill to ensure all workers have job-protected and paid sick leave during a public health emergency,” Gonzalez wrote in an email.

Lawmakers will get back to work soon, though …

The full Senate is expected to return from hiatus on May 11, and the Senate’s Special Committee on Pandemic Emergency Response is slated to meet before that, on May 6. The group was formed by Senate Pro Tem Toni Atkins to review the state’s response to the coronavirus pandemic. But the schedule is in flux.

In a press release Tuesday, Atkins said the Senate’s priority is to return to work in a way that does not endanger the health of the public, lawmakers and their staffs. She promised to release more details on physical distancing and remote participation before the session resumes.

While the Senate is planning to start taking votes remotely, the Assembly has reached a different conclusion about whether that’s legal under the California Constitution. Politico reports that Assembly leaders are worried future laws approved by a remote vote could be thrown out in the courts. There’s always a possibility that groups on the losing end of budget cuts could sue based on a violation of open meetings rules.

On the other hand, if lawmakers are unable to participate in person, the Senate has raised the question of whether that wouldn’t disenfranchise parts of California from the legislative process.

The Senate passed a resolution allowing for remote participation, and Atkins’ office, according to Politico, believes that by offering a mix of ways that lawmakers can participate puts them on safe legal ground.

Faulconer Allies Say the Governor Lied About His Beach Plans

A police group memo that caught fire on social media Wednesday night warned that Gov. Gavin Newsom was about to announce a statewide beach closure after crowds flocked to Orange County beaches last weekend.

Republican lawmakers rushed to condemn the decision before it was announced, urging the governor to reconsider.

When Newsom finally cleared things up at a press conference Thursday, he announced something far more limited: a closure of Orange County beaches only.

San Diego Republicans who’d complained before the announcement was made – a group that included San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer, County Supervisors Greg Cox and Dianne Jacob and Assemblywoman Marie Waldron – got what they wanted.

They still weren’t entirely happy, though. That’s because during his press conference, Newsom shot down the idea that their lobbying efforts had impacted his decision-making. He’d planned all along only to address Orange County, he said.

Faulconer’s current and former chiefs of staff both shot back on Twitter, arguing that simply wasn’t true.

“For the record, last night Mayor Faulconer’s administration was notified by Governor Newsom’s administration that he would be announcing the closure of ALL CA beaches. Minutes before today’s press announcement Mayor’s office was notified this would only apply to Orange County,” chief of staff Aimee Faucett wrote. Faucett’s predecessor, Stephen Puetz, jumped in too: “Pushing back against the Gov going too far is reasonable, and it worked. The Governor changed his mind and that’s a good thing. He should own it. He isn’t. Too bad.”

Freelance Journalists’ AB 5 Lawsuit Dismissed

AB 5, the law limiting when employers can classify workers as independent contractors, remains under attack at all levels of government – there are new bills seeking to overturn it, ballot measures seeking to exempt some workers and businesses from it and lawsuits hoping to invalidate it.

One of those lawsuits was thrown out by a federal judge last month, court documents show.

The lawsuit filed by the American Society of Journalists and Authors and National Press Photographers Association argued the law’s cap on how many submissions journalists could make to a single publication before they must be considered an employee violated their First and 14th Amendment rights. (Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, the bill’s author, has since proposed lifting that cap.)

A federal judge in Los Angeles rejected those arguments, and granted the attorney general’s request to dismiss the case.

The court docket suggests the journalists’ groups will appeal the judge’s decision to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Golden State News

Sara Libby was VOSD’s managing editor until 2021. She oversaw VOSD’s newsroom and content.

Jesse Marx is a former Voice of San Diego associate editor.

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