Bay Area Headlines: Thursday, 5/14/20, AM | KALW

Bay Area Headlines: Thursday, 5/14/20, AM

May 14, 2020

Budget Revise Today / Tourism Hit Hard / Wildfire Numbers Up / Unofficial CA Unemployment Help

Budget Revise Today

Governor Gavin Newsom is set to unveil a revised budget proposal today at noon. State lawmakers are bracing for steep spending cuts. In January, Newsom laid out a budget that included ambitious new spending on things like homelessness and health care. It also included a nearly 6-billion-dollar surplus. But that was before the pandemic, and the economy slamming to a halt. Now, the state is staring down a massive 54-billion-dollar deficit.

The state has a sizable rainy-day fund, but it won’t be enough, says Assembly budget chairman Phil Ting:

“Given the size of the deficit, it looks like we’ll have to do a combination of trying to find more revenue as well as cutting expenses. But we’re going to have to come and make some tough choices.”

Senate Democrats paint a slightly more optimistic picture. Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins says her chamber has already identified 100 billion dollars in solutions. She also pledged to avoid things like drastic spending cuts or middle-class tax increases. She says those:

“May pencil out on some temporary spreadsheets, but actually cause more economic damage and prolong our budget struggle.”

Lawmakers have until midnight on June 15 to pass a budget.

Tourism Hit Hard

Add tourism to the list of industries taking a huge hit from the coronavirus pandemic. California visitors spent $145 billion last year, up about three percent from 2018. This year, analysts say travel spending will be slashed to about half that amount: $72 billion. The company Tourism Economics predicts the pandemic will erase 10 years of growth in California's tourism-related spending, state and local tax revenue and jobs created.

Visit California — the state's tourism booster agency — says travel-related economic losses from the pandemic have been hardest on tourism workers, rural destinations in which tourism dominates the economy and hundreds of cities that use hotel taxes to pay for police, fire and other basic municipal services.

The latest figures from research firm Dean Runyan show tourism made up more than 10 percent of the labor force in 15 California counties.

Wildfire Numbers Up

The number of wildfires in California is up roughly 60 percent so far this year, according to Governor Gavin Newsom. He wants to step up fire prevention and preparedness. He says focusing on wildfires this year is important because, just like climate change, COVID-19 is complicating fire season:

“The hots are getting hotter, the driers are getting drier, the wets are getting wetter, there’s a new reality.”

Despite a projected $54 billion deficit he would like the state to step up efforts around wildfire and earthquake preparedness. He’s proposing $86 million extra for Cal Fire which will help it hire an additional 600 people. He says that’s important because the state is down 44 inmate fire crews.

When it comes to holding utilities accountable, Newsom said the California Public Utilities Commission is hiring more than 100 people to create a wildfire division that will monitor utilities 24-seven.

Unofficial CA Unemployment Help

With millions of Californians filing for unemployment benefits, it’s nearly impossible to reach someone at the state’s employment agency. So a grassroots Facebook group is answering questions about the confusing process, and gaining the trust of thousands in the process. 

“As soon as possible” at the Employment Development Department might mean hours on the phone. To speed things up, unemployed LA filmmaker Erica Chan started a Facebook group in March called “Unofficial CA unemployment help.” The group now has 32 thousand members. Along with volunteers, Chan answers detailed questions about how to file for benefits, and how to make sure people get their money:

“So, when they finally get paid, it’s such a great feeling to know that they’re good to go. A lot of us are struggling right now and knowing that somebody is able to go through the process and have what they need to survive, literally, is a good feeling.”

Rudy Salazar also answers questions. He and Chan use their own past experience filing for unemployment to help. Salazar says the work is satisfying. But the non stop phone calls and answering online messages.

“Sometimes it can be very overwhelming.”

The state has expanded call center hours and added hundreds of staff, but getting through is still a problem. For those struggling, Chan and Salazar say their Facebook group shows you’re not alone.