California reconsiders key environmental law 

For years, even decades, business groups have complained that the California Environmental Quality Act’s complex provisions were being misused to block worthwhile projects, often for reasons that had nothing to do with the environment.

The complaints drew sympathy from Republican legislators, and sometimes became intertwined with the state’s budget negotiations. But the Legislature’s dominant Democrats, closely allied with environmental groups, refused to entertain any major changes to the environmental law.

Suddenly, CEQA reform is a hot topic, and there are broad hints that something will happen in the final days of the 2012 legislative session.

On Monday, a coalition of mostly business groups, albeit with some union backing, dispatched a letter to Gov. Jerry Brown and legislative leaders calling for “modernization” of the law to curb abusive uses and setting forth a broad outline of how the 42-year-old law should be changed.

Carl Guardino of the Silicon Valley Leadership Group called it “a thoughtful yet meaningful CEQA reform” that would “modernize CEQA to stamp out non-environmental uses.”

Brown has conceptually endorsed  changes to the law, recently quipping, “I’ve never seen a CEQA exemption that I don’t like.” He’s hinted that he may seek such an exemption for the highly controversial high-speed rail project, which faces CEQA-based challenges.

Democratic leaders have dropped similar hints.

Assemblyman Brian Nestande, a Republican who helped Assembly Speaker John A. Perez move his pet bill to change corporate taxes, has indicated that a promise to reform the law was a big factor.

Environmental groups are openly worried that a big CEQA overhaul will be jammed through in the final hours of the session before they have a chance to marshal opposition.

One reason for that concern: Brown’s top political strategist, Steve Glazer, is an “adviser” to Guardino’s nameless coalition, which not only has submitted a broad outline, but is having actual legislative language drafted.

So why now, after CEQA reform has languished for so many years?

For one thing, as Guardino and others complain, the law is often misused for nonenvironmental purposes, such as forcing builders to make labor contract concessions.

For another, while California’s economy is officially recovering from the worst recession since the Great Depression, most Californians aren’t feeling it, and the state’s dense regulatory thicket is clearly an impediment to job-creating investment.

Finally, having a Democratic governor who has made environmental protection a personal and political cause now support CEQA change is certainly a factor — especially a governor who is soliciting business support for his ballot measure to increase taxes.

Dan Walters covers state politics for the Sacramento Bee.

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Dan Walters

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