California’s state government is navigating a new world as leaders take the first steps in organizing public meetings from their dinner tables. The Legislature closed last week until at least April 13. Meetings for state and regional regulatory agencies have also dropped off calendars in rapid succession, following a shelter-in-place order by Gov. Gavin Newsom.
Yet some have continued, with commissioners and staff awkwardly steering through committee procedures with the usual call-in beeps, overtalking and uncomfortable pauses found with conference calls. Many regulatory and legislative processes will likely continue this way through the coming months, as the California government settles into its new work-from-home routine.
On Monday, the California Fish and Game Commission held its first public meeting by phone.
“We’re going to continue to do the things we need to do…by us passing the regulations necessary,” said Commission President Eric Sklar, “and that we continue to protect our precious environment, which we appreciate even more now than ever.”
Regulations are also still being considered that could significantly impact the agriculture industry. Last week, the state’s Occupational Safety and Health Standards Board considered extending a temporary regulation that requires companies operating under poor air quality from smoke haze to either bring workers indoor or supply respirator masks.
While the meeting focused on an update rather than an actual vote, the board does plan to soon make the regulation permanent. For many on the call, it raised questions over how employers will now supply N95-rated masks when there is a worldwide shortage and a more immediate need for protecting healthcare providers. With scientists now predicting an above-average year for wildfire activity, the board has further reason to act on this proposal.
Also on the note of air quality, the Air Resources Board (CARB) held a dial-in meeting last week on a regulation in development to restrict emissions from refrigeration units for cargo containers. In a letter to the board, the agricultural and trucking industries urged CARB to hold off on that conversation, as those stakeholders are overwhelmed with the critical task of transporting emergency food and medical supplies during the crisis.
Regulations like these are also raising questions over potentially burdening an industry now considered “critical infrastructure” and that, along with much of the rest of the country, is also facing a dire economic forecast.
Among the more contentious regulations currently under consideration is Agricultural Order 4.0. The Central Coast Water Quality Control Board had set a tight deadline to renew the regulation by January 2021. The board posted its draft regulation in February, sending agricultural groups into a race to submit comments by a deadline of April 6. The board has cancelled three outreach meetings scheduled for this month, which will instead be online, and extended the public comment period by two weeks, with further extensions possible. The board is also reconsidering the four days it had set aside in May to discuss the public comments.
The state and regional water boards have also issued a notice that staff are “developing solutions to allow for upcoming board meetings to proceed with opportunities for remote participation.”
The Department of Water Resources has also extended public comment periods for both the Delta Conveyance tunnel plan and the groundwater sustainability plans submitted in January.
To the disappointment of some dairy advocates, CDFA has cancelled an April hearing to consider stopping dairy quota, a meeting that one group had petitioned for over the last year. CDFA will likely reschedule the meeting.
When it comes to pesticide regulations, the Department of Pesticide Regulation cancelled an advisory committee meeting scheduled for last week that would have provided feedback on the department’s proposed regulations on 1,3-D. With upcoming regulations on four widely used neonicotinoids, DPR Assistant Director Karen Morrison has told reporters the process is continuing and she still expects public outreach this spring on draft regulations.
A spokesperson said DPR has been modifying some activities and functions but proceeding with work when possible.
The Legislature, meanwhile, is talking internally about how to manage the legislative session. With more than 2,000 bills introduced in February, there are ongoing discussions about limiting the number of bills each member can carry into this session, but policy analysts and lobbyists suggest that could change the longer they stay on recess.
“When it comes down to it, there are only two issues that need to be addressed - the budget and an economic stimulus package,” says Louie Brown, Jr., an attorney with Kahn, Soares & Conway.
The budget at large is open to speculation as well. The state tax board extended its filing deadline to July 15, which delays the revenues needed to fund the next fiscal budget cycle. By law, the Legislature must approve a budget by June 15.
Some political insiders have suggested this could simply be the skeletal framework of a budget that gets fleshed out later with trailer bills.
“The budget is where most, if not everything will happen this year,” adds Brown. “Of course, the governor could always call a special session to deal specifically with COVID-19 and possibly, the economy.”
The Legislature faces the same issues over public input as the regulatory agencies. Just before closing the capitol for the first time in state history, the Senate passed a measure allowing them to meet remotely. The aim is to prevent large groups from gathering in the confined and poorly ventilated spaces of the capitol building.
Meeting by phone or video conferencing, however, has been raising accessibility and health concerns. Rural stakeholders, who are already often limited in cellular and broadband services, are also facing much more immediate challenges like the rest of the state, as schools remain closed and more than 100,000 Californians have been filing for unemployment each day.
Some groups switching to dial-up meetings are also setting aside conference space for the public to tune in and provide feedback. The Delta Stewardship Council is holding such a meeting on Thursday, hosting a remote location in downtown Sacramento and setting protocols for social distancing. The council notes this is compliant with open meetings laws as well as an executive order by the governor that waives certain public rights for meetings but requires agencies to provide at least one physical location for participation. A later order by the governor removed that condition.
More questions are being raised about the state’s ability to enforce its many regulations as the country is in the midst of a recession that is likely to be more painful than the recession a decade ago. At that time, CDFA was forced to cut staff, while agencies switched to fee-based revenues. Those fees for farmers from water quality regulatory programs have continued to rise in recent years, with a projected 10% increase this year based on the January budget proposal.
Environmental groups are also concerned that, once the nation is eventually safe to return to work after the outbreak, the focus on economic recovery will overshadow the state’s efforts over the years for stronger environmental regulations, particularly with climate-warming emissions. They fear a temporary dip in global warming that is anticipated as the world avoids most travel may reinforce such an argument, according to the Los Angeles Times.
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