Walters: California restaurants shouldn’t be shocked law banning ‘junk fees’ applies to them

Last Friday, a friend and I met at a chain restaurant in Sacramento for our customary weekly lunch. Both of us ordered $16 plates of Mexican food.

When the bill came, it totaled a bit over $36, including taxes and a $1.28 “surcharge.” We gave the server $45 before leaving, assuming that the extra cash would cover her tip.

I mention the somewhat mysterious surcharge because, just a few days earlier, California Attorney General Rob Bonta’s office declared that a new state law outlawing extraneous fees attached to bills for services or goods also includes restaurants.

“SB 478 applies to restaurants, just like it applies to businesses across California,” a Department of Justice spokesperson told the San Francisco Chronicle. “The law is about making sure consumers know what they are going to pay and requires that the posted price include the full amount that a consumer must pay for that good or service.”

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It was something of a shock to restaurateurs because when the bill was making its way through the Legislature last year, they inferred from the discussions that restaurants would be exempt. That assumption meant that restaurants were not among the business groups opposing the measure.

The Chronicle’s reporting generated a sharp reaction from restaurant operators, many of whom have added fees to their bills to cover rising costs, particularly for wages, without raising their basic menu prices.

“It feels like the state lit the fuse to this bomb and is standing back to see what happens,” Tim Stannard of Bacchus Management Group, which operates multiple Bay Area restaurants, told the newspaper. “It is terrifying. We can’t pay the wages we’re paying now unless we dramatically increase prices and hope guests actually come in and pay those prices.”

On Monday, the Employment Policy Institute, a national organization that tracks minimum wages and other employment issues from a business standpoint, denounced Bonta’s declaration, saying it would exacerbate a decline already evident in California’s restaurant industry.

“Service charges have been increasingly common tools aimed at keeping restaurants afloat and able to pay the higher minimum wages, amid rapidly rising state and local minimum wage requirements,” the organization said in a statement. “Since the state began annual wage hikes up to $16.50 per hour starting in 2017, and localities raised wages even higher, California restaurants have suffered significant losses. Now this tool will be taken away from restaurants, causing further damage to the industry and its employees.”

Bonta and a coalition of consumer groups sponsored SB 478 after President Joe Biden vowed to eliminate what he calls “junk fees” that have proliferated in multiple industries. Two Democratic senators, Nancy Skinner of Oakland and Bill Dodd of Napa, carried the measure, which gained final approval last September and will take effect on July 1.

“Bait-and-switch advertising to hide fees is a significant problem facing consumers that appears to be proliferating in more and more sectors of the economy” the bill authors said while it was pending. “Hiding required fees is nothing more than a deceptive way of hiding the true price of a good or service.”

Click here to read the full article in CalMatters

California home insurance crisis: These are the major insurers still offering policies

Numerous Californians have lost their home insurance over the past few years as some of the state’s largest insurers have cut back.

Photo by Ross Stone on Unsplash

Some insurers have limited where they will write new policies, and others have stopped writing new policies altogether. While most of the state’s 10 largest insurers say they are still offering new policies and renewing existing ones, there are key exceptions.

Together, the top 10 insurers represented just over half of the total California property and casualty insurance market in 2022, according to the latest available data from the California Department of Insurance. 

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Here’s what to know about the top 10 home insurers in California:

No. 1 State Farm

State Farm, California’s largest property and casualty insurer with an 8.7% market share, hasn’t offered new home policies since May 2023. The company said wildfire risk, construction costs and pricey premiums for reinsurance (insurance for insurers, which cannot be factored into rates in California) motivated the decision. 

The company has continued to renew most, but not all, of its existing policies, though prices are rising. In March, State Farm rates rose an average of 20% across the state. Shortly after the rate increase took effect, State Farm announced it would not renew 72,000 policies — 30,000 homeowner and other personal property policies and 42,000 commercial property policies, a small fraction of its policies in the state.

Click here to read the full article in the SF Chronicle

Electric bills could rise for folks in cooler coastal climes under new plan

Column: Inland and lower-income folks could see bills drop, analyses say

Nearly universally loathed: An income-based fixed service charge on electric bills.

It could have exceeded $100 a month for the wealthiest folks, according to early proposals, but “progressive” apparently only goes so far, even here in California.

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Once lawmakers realized they had approved this provision — a handful of paragraphs stuck into a long, last-minute trailer bill in 2022 — howls of rage erupted from Democrats, Republicans, and an irate public-at-large. Lawmakers backed away in nearly stampede-like fashion. Bills to repeal it were floated by legislators from both parties. Flurries of competing proposals were filed with the California Public Utilities Commission.

None of the bills survived. And now, after much gnashing of teeth, tearing of hair and high theatrics, a $24.15 flat, fixed, monthly service charge for all residential customers except the lowest-income Californians goes to the PUC for approval on May 9.

Folks in cool coastal climes would likely see bills increase, while folks in hot inland climes would likely see them decrease, according to the PUC’s in-house Solomon-the-Wise, charged with protecting the little guy.

Opponents call it a “utility tax” and say it’ll inflate costs for working and middle-income folks, with no cap to keep it under control going forward.

Here everyone might stop and take a breath. This is not a rate increase, the PUC insists, trying to raise its voice above the angry din. It is not a tax. It does not impose any new fees. It does not generate new profit for utilities.

“It simply reallocates how existing costs are shared among customers,” the PUC said in its primer when the proposal was announced in March.

Click here to read the full article in the OC Register

California settles opioid complaint with same company selling the state overdose meds

California Attorney General Rob Bonta on Friday announced a $273 million multistate settlement with New Jersey-based Amneal Pharmaceutical for the drug manufacturer’s alleged failure to report suspicious opioid orders, and as a consequence contributing to the opioid epidemic

If the name “Amneal Pharmaceuticals” rings a bell, it’s because just days earlier Gov. Gavin Newsom and state health officials announced a deal with this same company to procure naloxone, the overdose reversal medication, at a cheaper price than currently available. That agreement locks that state in as a long-term customer to the company.

Under the opioid settlement agreement that is yet to be finalized, Amneal will pay states a total of $92.5 million in cash and $180 million in naloxone products over a 10-year period. 

In a statement, Amneal said the settlement would resolve all pending lawsuits filed by states against the company.The company did not admit any wrongdoing. 

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Bonta in a written statement said the settlement “builds on our efforts to heal our communities and respond to this epidemic from all angles, from recovery services to resources on prevention and treatment.”

New York Attorney General Letitia James explicitly criticized the company in her statement about the settlement. 

“Amneal became one of the largest generic pharmaceutical companies in the world by profiting off the sale of dangerous opioids,” she said. According to James’ office, Amneal sold nearly 9 billion pills between 2006 to 2019.

To date, California  has secured $4.25 billion in opioid settlement funds from drug companies for their alleged role in fueling the opioid epidemic. The state uses the money on opioid remediation programs, such as distributing naloxone and training substance use providers.

Since 2018, the state has been purchasing the overdose reversal medication and distributing it to schools, law enforcement, county health departments and community harm reduction programs. 

Starting this month, California will be able to buy more naloxone because of the lower price it secured from Amneal: $24 for a two-unit nasal spray pack instead of the current price of $41.

In a statement, the Department of Health Care Access and Information, which is overseeing the naloxone contract, said it learned that Amneal was named in opioid litigation as it vetted proposals. 

“In making its decision to select Amneal for the naloxone program, CalRx prioritized factors such as price, time to market, and ability to meet the anticipated volume demands in California – understanding that more efficiency means more lives saved,” Andrew DiLuccia, a spokesperson for the department said in an email. 

Click here to read the full article in CalMatters

Judge rejects Eastman bid to retain law practice while fighting disbarment

He has pleaded with the judge to consider delaying the impact of her ruling.

A judge in California turned down an urgent plea Wednesday from John Eastman — an architect of Donald Trump’s bid to subvert the 2020 election — to allow him to keep practicing law while he fights an effort to permanently revoke his license.

Judge Yvette Roland recommended Eastman’s disbarment in March after finding he repeatedly breached legal ethics in service of Trump’s scheme to stay in power. Though her ruling is not the final word — and Eastman plans to appeal — it triggered an automatic suspension of Eastman’s license.

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In recent weeks, Eastman pleaded with Roland to consider delaying the impact of her ruling, noting that his inability to practice law would disrupt several ongoing federal cases — including a lawsuit brought by Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene and Matt Gaetz against two California cities that denied their request to host a political event. Eastman also represents the Colorado Republican Party in an election-related suit and a Colorado teenager suing his high school over administrators’ refusal to allow him to display a Gadsden flag.

Click here to read the full article in Politico

Crime is a ballot ‘vulnerability’ for California Democrats after Schiff, Bass break-ins

A trio of crimes involving Democratic lawmakers has put the spotlight back on public safety in the Golden State, an issue on which experts warn the party’s candidates could be vulnerable in November.

In the span of a week, Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass was the victim of a burglary at Getty House in Windsor Square, Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Burbank) had his suitcase stolen out of his car in the Bay Area, and a plainclothes police officer protecting San Jose Mayor Matt Mahan was punched by a pedestrian during a television interview.

All three incidents were ready-made fodder for Republican critics who often lambast California’s approach to public safety. They have also renewed concerns that how California voters think about crime could affect some Democrats in swing districts in November.

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“Voters are thinking: You’ve got to be kidding me,” said Darry Sragow, a longtime Democratic strategist. “Adam Schiff isn’t safe, Karen Bass isn’t safe — if they’re not safe, who is?”

Property and violent crime rates in California both rose during the COVID-19 pandemic, but remain far below the peaks of the 1980s and 1990s. When it comes to campaigns, though, what the statistics show is less important than how voters feel, Sragow said.

Crime is “definitely one of the top issues on voters’ minds right now,” said Mark Baldassare, the survey director of the Public Policy Institute of California, or PPIC, a nonpartisan think tank that regularly surveys Californians about their views on public policy issues.

The economy, homelessness and housing affordability are still top concerns, Baldassare said, but the share of likely voters who are concerned about crime appears to be growing. In December, the PPIC found that 8% of likely voters described “crime, drugs and gangs” as the most important issue facing the state. Two months later, 12% of likely voters said that crime was the most important issue for Gov. Gavin Newsom and the Legislature to address in 2024.

Those numbers are particularly high among voters who described themselves as independents: In February, 17% of likely independent voters said crime was the most important issue, up from 8% in December.

“The thing about crime is, it doesn’t take much — it just takes one or two things that people notice and makes them scared,” Baldassare said.

Recent high-profile attacks, including the shooting of an L.A. County Sheriff’s Department deputy stopped at a traffic light in West Covina, and a spate of stabbings on the L.A. Metro system, can leave uneasy Californians wondering “whether everything is falling apart,” Sragow said.

The job of Democratic candidates, Sragow said, will be “to address how people feel, that people have to feel safe when they walk outside.” Republican challengers, he said, will try to make a case for tough-on-crime policies, crafted subtly enough to try and appeal to “disaffected independents, and maybe some Democrats.”

Some of that tough-on-crime talk is coming from Democrats too. A shift in how state lawmakers in Sacramento are talking about public safety is proof that crime is “clearly a vulnerability” for Democrats in tight races, said Rob Stutzman, a Republican strategist.

He said voters’ concerns over crime probably won’t make a difference in the Senate race, where polling shows Schiff with a commanding lead over Republican challenger Steve Garvey. But, Stutzman said, those concerns could make a difference in more competitive districts, including the handful of California swing seats for Congress that could help decide control of the House of Representatives in November.

“The pendulum is swinging, and it’s dragging them with it,” Stutzman said of Democrats.

Democrats are a ripe target, given that the party has a firm grip on political power in California. Democrats hold every statewide office and control both chambers of the state Legislature. Republicans have not won a California statewide election since 2006, when Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger won reelection and Steve Poizner became insurance commissioner. Registered Democrats also outnumber Republicans by almost 2 to 1 in the state.

Click here to read the full article in the LA Times

Monthly payments of $1,000 could get thousands of homeless people off the streets, researchers say

A monthly payment of $750 to $1,000 would allow thousands of the city’s homeless people to find informal housing, living in boarding homes, in shared apartments and with family and friends, according to a policy brief by four prominent Los Angeles academics.

Citing positive preliminary results of pilot studies in several cities, including Los Angeles, they argue the income could provide access to housing for a portion of the population who became homeless primarily as the result of an economic setback. This could ultimately save millions of dollars in public services, they argued, and leave the overstretched and far more expensive subsidized and service-enriched housing for those who have more complicated social needs.

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“If the idea is to reduce the number of people on the street, definitely the fastest way to do that is money and not this incredibly complex system that we have built up primarily to help people with serious disabilities,” said lead author Gary Blasi, a professor emeritus in the UCLA School of Law.

The paper offers no prescriptions for how the payments should be funded or who should receive the money. Instead, the authors, coming from four separate disciplines, contrast the simplicity and documented effectiveness of basic income with the high cost and inadequate results of programs to provide standard housing for every homeless person.

“The truth is, we cannot afford not to do better than the current system, which spends a huge amount of money to house a small fraction of those in need,” they wrote.

That system, relying on housing navigators to “seek very scarce subsidized housing subject to strict criteria” is a “lengthy and expensive process” leaving thousands of rental subsidy vouchers unused and thousands of people unable to find housing.

“Providing interim housing during this process can be very costly, as is adding to the supply of housing,” they wrote.

Meanwhile, a source of readily available affordable housing goes untapped.

“Informal housing, once a subject of study only in developing countries, means housing that does not conform to the standards of the formal housing market,” they wrote. “It includes shared housing arrangements, housing that does not meet all code requirements, rooms rented in single-family homes.”

“There’s a vast informal rental market going on already all across California,”co-author Sam Tsemberis, aclinical community psychologist with the UCLA Department of Psychiatry, said in an interview. “People are renting out single-family homes. They have two or three beds in each of the bedrooms and are charging $400, $500 a month for people to sleep.”

Tsemberis is the founder of Pathways to Housing, a New York program that pioneered the Housing First approach now adopted across the nation as a model for housing chronically homeless people with compounding issues of mental illness and substance abuse.

Basic aid is not a substitute for housing first, Tsemberis said.

“This is for the group that has more resources internally, a work history, isn’t struggling mightily with mental illness or addiction,” he said.

Pointing to research by the Benioff Homeless and Housing Initiative at UC San Francisco, the authors suggest that more than half of people living on the streets fall into that category.

The study found that fewer than a third of a large sample of unhoused people in California had been tenants in “ordinary” housing before becoming homeless. “Most were last housed in a unit rented by someone else — i.e., the informal housing market. If they were required to pay rent, their median monthly rent was $450.19,” they wrote.

The authors cited a 2022 survey by Urban Institute of guaranteed income programs in Austin, Chicago and Arlington County, Virginia, that found cash subsidies provided more flexible housing support at lower cost, allowed recipients more dignity, avoided voucher discrimination by landlords and served people who were ineligible for government subsidies.

While those programs, and similar ones currently under way in Los Angeles County, are for a general population, a preliminary study by one of the authors has found that homeless people also benefit.

Ben Henwood, director of the Center for Homelessness, Housing and Health Equity Research at the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work, designed a controlled study of a cash stipend pilot mounted by the San Francisco-based nonprofit Miracle Messages.

Early results were so promising that Henwood released a preliminary six-month analysis breaking down recipients’ spending as 36.6% food, 19.5% housing, 12.7% transportation, 11.5% clothing and 6.2% healthcare, leaving only 13.6% uncategorized.

Click here to read the full article in LA Times

Many O.C. residents deny Trump election results, potentially swaying key races, poll finds

Alex Lopez doesn’t contest that Joe Biden was elected president in 2020.

His concern lies with how those results came to be.

“By the numbers? He absolutely won it. Ethically? Probably not,” said the 38-year-old Anaheim resident, who works as a logistics coordinator.

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Questions about the integrity of the election process have been stoked nationally for years, in large part because of former President Trump’s claims that victory was stolen from him.

The same goes for Orange County, where 26% of adults surveyed in a UC Irvine poll released this month said they did not believe Biden legitimately won the presidency in 2020, with another 17% unsure about the question.

In a purple county with several key races that could help determine the balance of power in Congress, these doubts could cause voters to stay home in November — particularly conservative voters.

A majority of the O.C. Republicans surveyed for the poll — 55% — thought Biden had not won fairly, while most Democrats — 88% — believed the election results.

A majority of people surveyed who aren’t members of either party said Biden won legitimately. However, 23% said he didn’t, and the same percentage didn’t know.

“Distrust in the election system may very well convince some people not to participate, and what we’re seeing is that people who distrust it more tend to skew to the right, and so that would hurt Republicans,” said Jon Gould, dean of the UCI School of Social Ecology, who spearheaded the poll.

The issue has played out locally in Huntington Beach, a longtime GOP stronghold that in recent years — along with the rest of the county — has grown more politically and demographically diverse. This has led to friction among residents and politicians with opposing political views.

In March, voters approved a measure allowing the city to require that voters show government-issued photo identification, beginning in 2026.

Huntington Beach Councilman Tony Strickland and Mayor Gracey Van Der Mark wrote in support of the ballot measure that voters “deserve the right to know that our elections are secure.”

“It is crucial for our democracy that voters have faith in our election results. That trust in the outcome of elections comes into question when we can’t always be certain who is voting,” they wrote.

California law requires residents to verify their identities when they register to vote and imposes criminal penalties for fraudulent registration. The state does not ask for photo identification at the polls, but voters are required to provide their names and addresses.

This month, California sued Huntington Beach over its new law. Atty. Gen. Rob Bonta said during a news conference that the photo identification requirement “is not only misguided — it is blatantly and flatly illegal.”

Election skepticism in O.C. may be lower than in some other parts of the country. In a national poll conducted by the Washington Post and the University of Maryland last December, 36% of respondents said Biden’s victory was not legitimate.

But in the highly competitive Orange County congressional races, particularly the 47th and 45th districts, where a few votes could sway the outcome, the repercussions could be far-reaching.

In the 45th District, Democrat Derek Tran is challenging incumbent Republican Rep. Michelle Steel. In the 47th District, which runs largely along the coast, Democrat state Sen. Dave Min and Republican Scott Baugh are facing off to replace Democratic Rep. Katie Porter.

As for the presidential rematch between Biden and Trump, there is little suspense in California because of its deep blue population in urban areas.

Still, Trump asserted in a speech at the GOP California Convention in Anaheim last year that “we would win California in a general election if they didn’t have a rigged voting system.” He alleged that people are getting five or six ballots mailed to them.

“Nobody knows where they’re going, who they’re going to, who signs them, who delivers them and who the hell counts them? Nobody knows,” he said.

The widespread use of vote-by-mail ballots, which began during the pandemic and has remained popular, has altered the pattern of vote counting as results trickle in, fueling beliefs that something nefarious is afoot.

“Trump was winning on election night, and then as more and more votes were counted, he began to lose, and that looks to some people like someone’s been tweaking the election results, as opposed to people for the first time being exposed to vote by mail,” Gould, of UCI, said.

Orange County Registrar of Voters Bob Page started conducting open tours of the ballot counting operation in Santa Ana during the 2022 midterms in an effort to show people the process and alleviate concerns.

But election skepticism and allegations of a “rigged” voting system have persisted.

The economy, abortion, foreign policy and immigration remain top issues for Orange County voters this cycle, according to the UC Irvine poll. The economy is among the top issues for both Democrat and Republican voters.

Democrats rank abortion as the third most important issue, behind checking a Trump presidency from “going too far” and the economy. Republicans rank the economy and situation at the border as their first and second most important issues.

Lopez, who is a nonaffiliated voter, said he worries about issues like ballot harvesting — particularly affecting people who might be susceptible to outside pressure — that he fears could skew election results.

Click here to read the full article in the LA Times

A California bill aiming to ban confidentiality agreements when negotiating legislation fails

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — A bill that sought to ban the use of confidentiality agreements when negotiating potential laws in California has failed to pass a state legislative committee.

The proposal by Republican Assemblymember Vince Fong failed to get enough votes to pass out of the Assembly Elections Committee on Thursday. Two Republicans voted for the bill while Democratic Assemblymember Gail Pellerin, the committee chair, voted against it.

Five other Democrats on the committee did not vote.

The legislation was inspired by last year’s negotiations over a bill that mandated a $20 minimum wage for fast-food workers. The bill, which Gov. Gavin Newsom signed into law, includes an exception for restaurants that produce their own bread and sell it as a standalone menu item.

It’s not clear why that exception was included. The exception was also included in similar legislation that passed the year before.

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Bloomberg News reported the exception was meant to benefit one of Newsom’s wealthy campaign donors who owns Panera Bread restaurants. Newsom and the donor, Greg Flynn, denied the story. The Newsom administration said the exemption does not apply to Panera Bread restaurants. Flynn also pledged to pay his workers $20 an hour beginning April 1.

Labor unions and industry groups representing California restaurants met privately last summer to discuss the bill before coming to an agreement. The parties signed a nondisclosure agreement, which KCRA first reported.

Fong criticized that agreement. He introduced a bill that would void any nondisclosure agreement relating to the drafting, negotiation, discussion or creation of legislation. The bill would have also banned public officials from signing these agreements or asking third parties to sign them.

“Nondisclosure agreements certainly have their place to protect businesses’ proprietary and financial information. But they should not be used in the crafting and negotiating laws that affect the daily lives of our constituents,” Fong said. “The public already has a poor perception of the legislative process. Allowing the use of NDAs will further erode and corrode their trust in government.”

Pellerin, the Democratic chair of the committee, noted there has been no evidence that public officials have signed confidentiality agreements related to legislative negotiations.

Click here to read the full article in AP News

Walters: California once led in government transparency. It descended into secrecy and opacity

California once was a national leader in making government more transparent, requiring state and local agencies to conduct their business in public meetings and giving Californians easy access to public records.

Photo courtesy Franco Folini, flickr

In recent years, however, transparency has eroded. The Legislature has retreated into semi-secrecy, particularly on the state budget but also on other major legislation. Due to a construction project, legislative offices have been moved from the Capitol to an almost impenetrable building, making in-person contact more difficult.

Behind those well-guarded doors, decisions are made and deals are cut and the outcomes are simply announced and enacted with sometimes little or no meaningful debate. In recent years, governors and legislators have been using budget “trailer bills” to pass major changes in policy with little or no notice.

The descent into secrecy has, for obvious reasons, coincided with the advent of one-party government. The dominant Democrats can ignore media and the larger public because they know their numbers insulate them from accountability.

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The increasing opacity of state government decision making is compounded by its having data systems that are clunky and often offer only outdated information. Cal-Access, the system that contains political information, such as campaign contributions and lobbying expenditures, is especially difficult to use and efforts to improve it have themselves been sporadic.

Projects to modernize the state’s information technology have been underway for decades, but have experienced numerous delays and failures despite costing billions of dollars.

A poster child for the data shortcomings is the Financial Information System of California, which has the catchy acronym of FI$Cal. It was envisioned many years ago as a comprehensive financial management tool for all state agencies but is only partially operational.

One aspect of FI$Cal’s situation is that California is chronically tardy in reporting its financial picture. State Controller Maila Cohen recently released the state’s “Comprehensive Financial Report,” a nearly 400-page document required by law to be prepared each year. It was a report on the 2021-22 fiscal year that should have been issued a year earlier, but wasn’t because FI$Cal and other data systems could not generate timely and accurate numbers.

Cohen acknowledged its tardiness in a cover letter, saying it “will mark the fifth consecutive year that California has published its financial statements well beyond the regulatory deadline of nine months after the fiscal year end,” and blamed it on FI$Cal and other technical shortcomings.

The state auditor’s office, which is charged with reviewing the annual financial report, has been highly critical of FI$Cal’s implementation in a series of audits for the Legislature. Three years ago, the office issued a report saying that FI$Cal’s deficiencies were chronically delaying the state’s annual economic reports, and noting that delays were hindering the state’s ability to borrow money and execute funding agreements.

Click here to read the full article in CalMatters

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