Essential California Week in Review: An astounding $97.5-billion projected budget surplus


Good morning, and welcome to the Essential California newsletter. It is Saturday, May 14.

Here’s a look at the top stories of the last week

California’s government surplus is expected to balloon to $97.5-billion by next summer under the budget plan unveiled by Gov. Gavin Newsom. The estimate vastly exceeds previous projections and comes amid concerns that rising inflation and arcane spending rules could throw the state’s finances into disarray in the near future. Many of the governor’s ideas on how to use the extra cash — including rebates, new debt repayments and additional funding for public schools — are contained in a $300.6-billion budget blueprint for the fiscal year that begins in July. Other portions of the surplus would be set aside in the state’s cash reserves. Also: How Newsom would spend the surplus.

The Coastal fire broke out Wednesday afternoon in a coastal canyon near the Pacific Ocean in an upscale section of south Orange County. Hundreds of residents fled as the flames swept into a gated community of multimillion-dollar homes overlooking the ocean. On Thursday, as authorities looked for the cause of the blaze, Edison said there’d been “circuit activity” at the time the fire was reported. Experts said preliminary reports suggested an unlucky combination of factors ratcheted up the devastation: Moderate winds, steep terrain and drought-ravaged vegetation worked together to drive flames into a community where homes had been constructed before fire-hardening building codes took effect.

Wealthy L.A. County communities are seeing the fastest rise in coronavirus cases. The trend echoes previous waves, in which a larger number of higher-income people became infected with the virus first. That was followed by “steeper increases in lower-resourced communities,” said L.A. County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer. Poorer residents are more likely to suffer worse outcomes from COVID-19.

California’s minimum wage is going up. It will rise for all employers to $15.50 an hour in January, the first time rising inflation has triggered a provision of a 6-year-old state law governing automatic pay increases.

Nearly 4 million Angelenos will be reduced to two-day-a-week watering restrictions on June 1. Among the restrictions that will be required by the DWP, residents will be assigned two watering days a week based on their addresses — Monday and Friday for odd addresses and Thursday and Sunday for even ones — with watering capped at only eight minutes, or 15 minutes for sprinklers with water-conserving nozzles.

New California home buyers could soon get government cash to help with down payments and mortgage costs. The proposed $1-billion program is intended to make homeownership more financially feasible for low- and middle-income residents. It would lend prospective buyers 17% of a home’s purchase price. Once a homeowner sells, transfers or refinances their house, according to the program’s outline, they would pay back to the revolving fund an amount equal to 17% of the home’s current value — even if the amount is larger than the initial loan.

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Lawmakers are looking to cap the water-well-drilling frenzy. As climate change intensifies droughts, California growers are pumping more groundwater. But there’s only so much to go around, and wells in some communities have been affected. Falling water levels have left hundreds of homes with dry wells. Some state legislators are now supporting a bill that they say would strengthen oversight — even as agricultural landowners have been “rushing to get their wells in” before limits on pumping take effect.

Water levels at the state’s two largest reservoirs are in bad shape heading into summer. It’s the time of year when California’s water storage should be at its highest, but Shasta Lake and Lake Oroville are critically low.

Most Californians believe UC and CSU are unaffordable and see community college and vocational training as good alternatives, a new poll shows. Meanwhile, the state is launching one of its largest ever efforts to make four-year college affordable, pouring $1 billion into expanded Cal Grants, middle-class scholarships and more affordable student housing and textbooks.

Lawmakers called for an inquiry into state Controller Betty Yee’s role in a failed mask deal. They said they were troubled by Yee’s behind-the-scenes advice to a politically connected company seeking a $600-million no-bid government contract to provide COVID-19 masks. In one text message included in the court documents, Yee discouraged Blue Flame’s co-founder John Thomas, a Republican political consultant, from disclosing how much the company stood to make from the deal because it might “become a matter of public record and make headlines.”

May gray and June gloom are under threat by climate change. There are multiple reasons that’s a bad thing. Without the clouds, the loss of moisture from vegetation is hastened and wildfire risk ratchets up. The planetary sunscreen is crucial this year as California braces for a grim summer of heat and drought conditions.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement has crafted a sophisticated surveillance dragnet designed to spy on most people living in the United States. This network many times circumvents state privacy laws, such as those in California, according to new investigation. The agency has turned to third-party outfits — utility companies, private databases and even the Department of Motor Vehicles in some states — to amass a trove of information to target people for deportation. ICE spent an estimated $2.8 billion between 2008 and 2021 on surveillance, data collection and data-sharing initiatives, the report says.

ICYMI, here are this week’s great reads

Professionally, he’s a drywall contractor, but in the trophy bass-fishing world, Butch Brown is the Greatest of All Time. Brown has caught well over 1,500 — repeat 1,500 — largemouth bass weighing over 10 pounds, including many “teeners” (13 pounds or more). We ride along with Bass on a fishing trip to see how he does it. “Envious millions have watched his YouTube videos showcasing his fishing mastery. There’s his emphatic shout, “Dude! Look at the size of that one!” while he holds up another giant; his patient explanation of rigging your bait “my way”; and his grateful release of double-digits back into the lake.

As the baby formula shortage worsens, families are taking desperate steps. One mom, trying to transition a bottle-fed baby back to breast milk, has had to take a leave of absence from her job to pump, nurse and rebuild her milk supply so she can feed her child. Some parents are transitioning their babies to solid food “before they’re developmentally ready,” said one source. Aguora mom Gillian Mahar, whose 9-month-old twins need hypoallergenic formula, said she and her husband “probably went to 50 stores within a 20-mile radius. We had family members who were driving from Phoenix to L.A., stopping in every Target and grocery store on the way, trying to find it.”

Today’s week-in-review newsletter was curated by Amy Hubbard. Please let us know what we can do to make this newsletter more useful to you. Send comments, complaints and ideas to essentialcalifornia@latimes.com.

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