Fast-track legislators stall on reform

A late-blooming, business-backed drive to significantly alter the 42-year-old California Environmental Quality Act died late last week when it crashed into a wall of opposition from influential environmental groups.

That wasn’t the official reason, of course. Rather, legislative leaders insisted that putting off CEQA modification was a good government decision not to rush something so significant.

“This law, for all of its strengths and its faults, is far too important to rewrite in the last days of the session,” state Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg said.

Steinberg, who does public sincerity well, uttered those words with a straight face. But at the risk of sounding churlish, one must point out that the fact that just a few days remain in the session has not dissuaded him or other legislative leaders from ginning up almost countless numbers of new bills with far-reaching economic and social effects.

Such as:

  • Steinberg’s own bill that would overturn, or at least significantly alter, a 2011 state Supreme Court decision on how medical costs are to be awarded in personal injury cases, the top priority of his friends with the Consumer Attorneys of California, the trade group for personal injury lawyers. If enacted, his bill could have multibillion-dollar effects.
  • Another Steinberg bill that would semilegalize about 3 million illegal immigrants in California by allowing them to file income tax returns, plus a second measure that would grant state driver’s licenses to at least some of those immigrants.
  • An overhaul of the state’s system of compensating workers for job-related illnesses and injuries that was drafted in private by unions and major employers and placed in bill form just last week, but is drawing heavy opposition from workers’ comp lawyers, medical care providers and small employers.
  • On Tuesday, a supposed reform of the immense structure of pensions for state and local government workers, once again hammered out in secrecy with Gov. Jerry Brown.

Virtually all of these and many other last-minute bills are being rushed through the process as “gut-and-amend” exercises, wherein a dormant bill’s contents are stripped out and an entirely new bill is inserted, bypassing the multiple hearings and other legislative hurdles that more ordinary measures must endure.

Some of these transmogrified measures are hundreds of pages long, making it virtually impossible for anyone outside the inner circles of “stakeholders” to fully understand what they would do. And some are being treated as budget “trailer bills,” thus qualifying them for fast action, even if they have little to do with the budget and just contain token $1,000 appropriations.

Good government? Taking the time to do it right? Scarcely.

Dan Walters covers state politics for the Sacramento Bee.

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