Put the Legislature in an NBA-Style Bubble

Joe Mathews
Connecting California Columnist and Editor, Zócalo Public Square, Fellow at the Center for Social Cohesion at Arizona State University and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (UC Press, 2010)

The Capitol and the blocks around it often feel like a bubble, especially for those of us who visit from that faraway place called the Rest of California. 

Now it’s time to make it a real bubble, so the legislature can do its work.

The California legislature finished its session without doing essential business on all manner of urgent issues—from COVID relief to fires to police reform. (I’d also throw tax reform into the mix, but that’s a subject for a different column). That was largely because of COVID. The legislature shut down at different points of the year because of the pandemic. And the end of session also saw conflict over remote voting, and the rules surrounding it.

That conflict produced the scene of one legislator, a new mother, bringing her baby onto the floor because of conflict and confusion over the remote voting rules. (For the record, seeing babies on the floor of the legislature isn’t news—there are 120 lawmakers, many of them prone to crying and whining—but the difference this time was age. This baby was a newborn).

The lesson of the end-of-fiasco is that legislators should be there in person. But to do that, the Capitol must become a literal bubble. The NBA, the pro basketball league, has a successful model that the legislature should copy.

Essentially, the NBA created a bubble in Orlando—a secure space for the players and other people who need to be there (coaches, staffers, referees, media members). To enter the bubble you must be tested and go through a period of quarantine. If you leave, you have to go through a process to re-enter. This keeps those in the bubble COVID free. And it has worked; sports leagues without a bubble have had COVID outbreaks, like the legislature itself.

In Sacramento, it’d be easy. Legislators, staff, as well as lobbyists and reporters, would move into hotels and offices around the Capitol. The blocks around the Capitol would be secured—you couldn’t get in without going through the protocol, and agreeing to be there for a time. All those with jobs inside the bubble would be able to bring in a few family members—but those relatives would have to remain in the bubble as well.

 To try this out, it would be good to call a special session. Certainly, the legislature needs to act on a host of things. And a bubble of at least a month would be a good dress rehearsal for next year’s session, especially if we don’t see a vaccine.

 Yes, it would be a sacrifice for the lawmakers. But these are extraordinary times, when the state has extraordinary legislative needs. And Californians across the state are making extraordinary sacrifices.

 And living in a bubble isn’t new for politicians. It’s just that they’d be moving from a metaphorical bubble into a real one.

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