The coronavirus pandemic has been an economic catastrophe. Thousands of businesses have been shuttered, millions of Americans have lost their jobs, and even as the economy recovers, the unemployment rate remains over 6 percent—almost double the 2019 number—and surveys indicate that four in ten Americans are still economically worse off than they were at the onset of the pandemic.
This misfortune, however, did not extend to one state—California, which ended the year with a jaw-dropping $76 billion budget surplus. Other estimates have placed the number closer to $40 billion, which is considerably lower, but nonetheless much better off than other states.
The funds are being used to fund a number of state projects; however, a significant chunk of the funds are being set aside to pay for a one-time payment to all residents of California within certain income restrictions—a “Golden State Stimulus” payment for which roughly two-thirds of Californians are eligible.
California’s Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom has drawn significant attention to the stimulus check shell out, which some people view as a possible political move. The governor’s popularity has dropped sharply during the pandemic, due in part due to a chaotic vaccination rollout strategy and in part due to a more typical scandal. After pushing for increased coronavirus lockdown measures to stem the tide of the coronavirus infections, the governor was photographed violating his own restrictions in order to attend a lobbyists’ dinner at an expensive restaurant in Napa Valley.
That scandal propelled a recall ballot initiative against Newsom, which gained more than two million signatures and qualified for the ballot. Consequently, the governor has touted the budget surplus, and the resulting stimulus payment, as a major accomplishment.
However, the payment had little to do with Newsom; it is required by a California law called the Gann Amendment, which states that any budget surplus over a certain threshold needs to be returned directly to residents. The law has only come into effect once before, in 1987, when $1.1 billion was returned in the form of direct payments. The Golden State Stimulus program will be far larger, at roughly $16 billion.
To qualify for the payment, you must be a California resident who filed your 2020 taxes and made $75,000 or less. You must also live in the state for at least six months and not be eligible to be claimed as a dependent on someone else’s tax form. All California residents, including undocumented immigrants, are eligible for the payment.
Trevor Filseth is a current and foreign affairs writer for The National Interest.