In-Depth: How much could a Republican governor get done in deep blue California?

Emergency Services Act grants broad powers
Posted at 6:20 PM, Aug 31, 2021
and last updated 2021-09-01 19:06:40-04

SAN DIEGO (KGTV) -- The Republican candidates running to replace Gavin Newsom in next month’s recall election have promised big changes if voters remove the Democratic governor from office.

But would California's political realities allow that? Democrats control a supermajority in the legislature. That means they can pass new laws and approve a budget without negotiating with the governor. They have the votes needed to override a veto.

Still, a Republican in the governor's mansion would wield considerable power in other ways, according to UC San Diego political science chair Thad Kousser.

“That governor would have huge ability to use the executive orders and the emergency authority that governors of California have that’s accentuated in a pandemic like this,” he said.

California’s Emergency Services Act gives the governor authority to suspend any state law and spend money from any state fund to address an emergency. It’s the governor who decides what amounts to an emergency. State law merely requires a threat to life, property, or state resources.

“California Governors have broad authority to declare that emergency and take unilateral action that can’t be checked by the legislature to address it,” Kousser said.

As of Monday, Governor Newsom had signed 64 executive orders related to COVID-19, more than Governor Jerry Brown issued in his last eight years in office.

They cover everything from the original stay-at-home order to the tier-based business restrictions. The orders also include a pause on evictions and an effort to boost broadband access.

On top of those executive orders, Newsom’s administration has issued numerous public health orders. The most controversial rolled out vaccination requirements for state employees and school staff and mask rules at K-12 schools.

All of the leading Republican candidates say they would undo those vaccination and mask mandates.

“It would make about a 180-degree turn in California’s approach to the pandemic. And that’s before we get to wildfire season,” Kousser said.

Former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer said he’d declare an emergency on wildfires to speed up efforts to clear trees and brush.

Talk show host Larry Elder, the presumptive frontrunner among the Republican candidates, said he’d declare a homelessness emergency to suspend the California Environmental Quality Act and free up housing development.

Candidates could use emergency powers to send the National Guard to the U.S.-Mexico border.

Elder said he would end Newsom’s executive orders on environmental issues, such as a ban on oil fracking and an order phasing out the sale of gas-powered vehicles by 2035.

“Those could be reversed immediately. Anything done through an executive order could be reversed through an executive order,” Kousser said.

There are limits to the governor’s executive authority powers, Kousser said. They can suspend laws to direct resources, but they can’t create new laws.

Democrats in the legislature have the authority to end an emergency declaration by concurrent resolution. By then, the governor has already taken action.

The governor also has the authority to appoint people. He can appoint judges freely, but many top officials require confirmation by the state Senate. That includes the state public health officer and members of the Board of Education.

Democrats have indicated they would block those appointments.

The most significant appointment could be for U.S. Senate. At 88, Senator Dianne Feinstein is the oldest sitting senator. There’s speculation she could retire before her term ends in 2024. In that case, the governor would appoint her successor.