Answering Your Questions On CA's Response To COVID-19

As we continue to navigate these unprecedented times, KCBS Radio is getting the answers to your questions about the coronavirus pandemic. Every morning at 9:20 a.m. Monday-Friday we're doing an "Ask An Expert" segment with a focus on a different aspect of this situation each day.

Today we’re looking at all things California including the state budget, relief, restrictions and more with Democratic Assemblymember Phil Ting who represents part of San Francisco and San Mateo County.

We're doing this virtually, as everything is done these days. Let me ask you first about that; how strange is it to not be in the hallowed halls of the Capitol button-holing people and face-to-facing?

I'm actually here at the Capitol in my office, but I'm one of the few people here. It's very odd because there are Assemblymembers and Senators in their offices but we hardly see each other. You don't see people roaming the halls, you come into the office and just hunker down and work. Most of our meetings are still via Zoom, just like everybody else.

Let's get into some of these questions because obviously you and your colleagues have some tough choices ahead. The Governor has laid out his May revise; that's political talk for something that happens in the middle of May every year, but nothing like this. You've been up there for a few years, you've never seen anything like this.

Well we haven't seen a shift January to May anything like this. In January we had a few billion dollar surplus, in May we now have a $54 billion deficit. I've never seen that kind of swing ever. I've seen unemployment numbers tick up, going from a couple thousand to millions overnight. It's pretty jarring.

Let me ask you before we get to the listener questions. You've got two levers here; you're both seeing the spending go up dramatically, but the revenue side has to be frightening to look at when you consider the income taxes that won't be paid, the sales taxes that won't be paid, motor vehicles. I could go down the list, you know them all.

What's scary is we're heavily dependent on income taxes primarily. We get about $100 billion in income taxes and then sales tax is next - a pretty significant dropoff, about $30 billion. But what's shocking is this year is not even the bad budget. Next year is the bad budget because we already collected income taxes for 2019; 2019 was a pretty good year. So again, 2020 is when we're going to see this really drastic drop in income taxes and that's going to make next year's budget even tougher.

Let's get going with the listener questions, and these are sent in to

I hear one of the plans to save the state money is to close a couple of prisons. Wouldn’t that affect public safety?

I think that's a great question. Our prison population has actually drastically been reduced, yet we are at an all-time low in terms of crime rate. We went from a prison population of about 180,000 to about 130,000. And we spend about $13 billion on our prison population, so that's about $100,000 per person. And right now we need to make it more efficient, we need to do better. And frankly that experience, you'd think for $100,000 a year per person they'd feel like they went to the Ritz-Carlton but they don't. And they should be coming out better and rehabilitated, and they don't.

So the idea is to consolidate facilities because we have an opportunity as the population has gone down. It makes sense and it's really one of the only ways to save money. So if you want money for schools, one of the only places to really cut that we all agree on is in the prisons.

I'm collecting unemployment insurance benefits and still working part-time. For weeks when my part-time earnings are too high for me to collect regular California UI benefits, do I still get the $600 federal supplement?

According to my staff, it's no. You have to be eligible for at least $1 in unemployment benefits to get the additional $600.

You probably heard Secretary Mnuchin this morning talking about this conundrum for a lot of people, it makes more sense for many to stay home rather than go back to work.

That is the problem. That's one of the complaints I have been hearing from different businesses, especially restaurants that are open. They have a hard time finding people because people didn't want to go in.

I'm hearing about a lot of money being spent at the state and local levels. Who's keeping track of all of this and making sure we're not wasting taxpayer money? Is there any kind of special audit or something?

At all levels of government. We have a state auditor. We also have a controller, a duly elected controller that's in charge of that. In the city and county of San Francisco you have a controller and then in every county you have an auditor that is regularly auditing and looking through all the various finances.

This one goes to property taxes: these fund a substantial portion of public services. As a former county assessor - which you are - what concerns should we have with municipalities being able to fund services critical to a sustained response?

We should be very concerned. Right now, the biggest challenge for the state and local governments is we cannot go into deficits, whereas the federal government can. So when the feds decide to do stimulus money they're going into debt, which we're not allowed to do. I know cities, counties, states are all looking to the federal government for assistance because that's the way the system was set up. The Treasury can print money, they can issue bonds, they can borrow money very very quickly whereas we can't. I know that as a state we have a direct request in to the federal government, I know cities and counties are as well. We really have to look to the federal government to help us out. 

I work at Creativity Explored, a 38-year-old nonprofit art studio and gallery in San Francisco that supports over 130 artists with developmental disabilities. We have experienced a significant loss of income during COVID-19 and are now hearing more cuts are on the table. What can we do to ensure funding for services for people with disabilities is not cut but increased during a time when organizations and group homes are scrambling to provide basic needs, keep people safe and maintain their staff?

That's a great question and I think the challenge with COVID is it's not an isolated virus that only is affecting a small part of the population. It's affecting everyone in the state, everyone in the country and so everyone is in need. The developmental disabled community already had a $2 billion shortfall of need before COVID when times were good. Now the need's going even higher but we are at a point where we may have to do budget cuts and unfortunately what we're looking at is across-the-board cuts for populations that are all in need. That's the most challenging part and even if we don't cut the DD community then we're at the risk of maybe cutting schools more, or we have to cut CalFresh more. So none of the choices, as you articulated, are any good.

I have to say, I like being able to pick up a cocktail to-go from a restaurant! Do you think these rules will be extended after the pandemic?

It's kind of a lengthy list, if I'm not mistaken, of Alcoholic Beverage Control regulations that have been relaxed.

I think at least during the pandemic they will continue to be relaxed, especially until we allow restaurants to fully open up. That's my guess. Afterwards, it's very difficult to say. The alcohol regulations are very strict and very detailed, which I never truly appreciated or realized until I got up here. But I think it's worth a discussion and something that I know people have really appreciated.

Do you think that we'll be doing more of this in other areas of state regulatory law?

I think we're going to have to adapt to doing things that are more take-out, delivery, virtual. I know we've all had to figure out how to work virtually over the last few weeks. So until we figure out a vaccine or really can physically interact in a much more safe environment, I think we do have to do some adaptations. So we are always looking at ways to adapt to this COVID environment.

Why don't we just reopen everything? That gets our economy going. People with jobs spend money and fill state coffers.

Yeah, well here's the number one reason why: if we reopen everything our rate of infections could skyrocket, our hospitals could get overrun and then we'd have to shut the economy down again. So what we don't want to do is reopen and then have to ask people to stay at home one more time, which would I think be even worse for the economy.

If you talk to economists, and I've had a number of conversations during the last few weeks, the one thing you can do is not create that kind of volatility. You really want to make sure we're managing the pandemic so then when we open up, we're really open. So I think it's a reasonable question and I can't tell you how many times a day I get that question as well as from businesses, but really everyone is being asked to stay at home because this virus is extremely contagious and it's deadly.

Does anyone know when the DMV is going to start offering driving road tests again? My son was supposed to have his test two weeks ago but obviously that didn't happen. 

Great question. DMV offices are slowly starting to open up. I don't know when they'll be offering driving tests because again, as an employer we have to keep our employees safe. And if we're not letting people cut people's hair, I don't know how we can say that it's okay to have people in an enclosed car and doing their driving tests. So I think we'll probably see that occur when other industries open up like the barber shops and hair salons, that's my guess.

Could be a big comeback for the convertible. (laughs)

Yeah or mopeds. (laughs)

I wanted to ask the Assemblyman if he can help me. I applied for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance three weeks ago and have heard nothing back. I have emailed them and gotten no response. I have called over 200 times and have been told their operators are unable to answer and been disconnected. It doesn’t help that the calls are only taken from 8 a.m. to 12 p.m. Monday through Friday either. I am desperate and at risk of not being able to feed my family.

They can definitely give our office a call at 415-557-2312 and you can also send that information in to them. We're happy to assist them.

And do you see a lot of this going on, you and your colleagues? Are you getting direct constituent calls and so on?

Absolutely. The two most common constituent calls before the pandemic were always DMV and EDD because those are the two biggest state services that cover the most people. And obviously the DMV calls have sort of calmed down especially with the REAL ID deadline being moved a year, and the EDD calls have just gone through the roof. And it's very common and to be honest even we are having trouble getting ahold of EDD. We don't hear back oftentimes for two weeks. 

Again, we're trying to help as many people as we can but they are just overwhelmed. I think since the pandemic started it's like four million folks have filed for unemployment. Just to give you a sense, it went from 2,000 people a day to four million people. So that's a lot of people.

I'm worried about schools. What can you tell parents, teachers and kids about the future of California's public schools and publicly funded colleges?

Well I'm worried about schools too. I have a 7th grader and a 4th grader in San Francisco public schools and it makes me nervous everyday. The hardest part of my day is getting up in the morning and getting my daughters onto Zoom. It's like the biggest challenge. It used to be dropping them off every morning.

But I'm extremely concerned. We had a hearing here at the Capital with our State Superintendent of Education, really just talking about what the guidelines are for distance learning. It looks like we're going to have some level of distance learning in the fall and it's not clear whether it's going to be all virtual, whether it's going to be half virtual. We're not sure. But we're really encouraging the State Superintendent to provide some guidance, some assistance to all the different districts up and down the state. But I am extremely worried and if you talk to teachers, they're not happy about doing this. But again, this is not an ideal situation but as a community we will definitely get through this. I know it's very very stressful but we're doing this to keep everybody safe and that's the ultimate goal. So unfortunately whereas kids maybe aren't learning as much as we'd like, we've decided to make their safety the priority.

Do you think there will be a second round of stimulus checks? The first round of the $1200 barely helped. I heard that a representative suggested a base help of $2000 a month to help everyone, is that true? 

I assume this question may be asking about Senator Kamala Harris' proposal.

There's now been talk about a universal basic income for a while now, which would just be a set check for everybody in the country, every month. That idea's been floating around for a couple years and I think some Senators have pushed that legislation in the U.S. Senate. That is something that's been up for discussion.

Having said that, I know we continue to advocate for another round of stimulus, that's part of what the states and the cities and counties are fighting for too. So the hope is that there will be some more money, it's just not clear how much and who's going to get the funding.

Some tax questions have come up because people now have until all the way to July 15th to worry about their taxes.

I pay for my son's college tuition attending UCSF. If I don't claim him as my dependent in my 2019 1040 and if my son files his own 2019 1040 as "no one claims him as dependent", is he eligible to receive the IRS $1200 stimulus check?

He needs to talk to an accountant, I'm not an accountant. But I think if he has worked then he can. I think it's not enough to just file it if he has never been employed.

I'm a little concerned about real estate values here in the Bay Area. We're all stretched to the limits to pay for our mortgages. Do you think that this pandemic is going to do some damage to the value of real estate?

I think real estate values will come down. But again that's all cyclical. You don't have to worry about that if you don't have to sell your property. Just hold on to your property and the property will go back up. This is what we saw in 2008, 2010, we saw it in 2000-2002. Prices go up, prices go down. It's just part of the market.

I've got one for you, following up on the Governor's hint yesterday about sports. What do you think is going to happen with the return of sports in California? 

Different sports leagues have been talking about having sports without spectators. You might recall the Warriors talking about that before the NBA shut down. So I imagine that sports will come back, I imagine that they will be able to play without an audience. 

I think the question is when will you be able to have an audience? And it's very hard to predict because it's just not clear when you can have 40,000 people gathered together safely, so that's going to be the big question.

Policies are in place but I keep finding businesses that aren't following the rules. Who's enforcing them? I'm especially concerned about schools who in my 22 years of experience consider wiping tables or desks to be a deep clean.

My understanding is the police, at least locally local police have been enforcing it. But I think they've been enforcing more whether somebody is open or not, I don't think there's anybody going in and making sure that a place has been properly cleaned. I think that's why we're asking people to stay at home.