For the second session in a row, Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez is staking his political capital on dubious legislation he hopes will elevate his legislative stature. He failed last year, and he's likely to fail this year, at considerable potential cost to the work product of the Assembly and Senate.
Last year, Pérez went all out on a bill that would dissolve Vernon, a city with a history of corruption and flush with revenue-generating industries coveted by Los Angeles County. Vernon's lobbyists beat back that effort in the Senate. Numerous Senate bills died in the Assembly, with their authors claiming retaliation, which Pérez denied.
This session, Pérez is pushing legislation to amend state tax law in a way that would raise an additional $1 billion yearly from out-of-state corporations, with the proceeds going toward college scholarships for families making less than $150,000 annually. That's a more meritorious cause than meddling in municipal incorporation. But it still is problematic, given that the state continues to face budget deficits and should be dedicating all additional revenue to maintaining existing services and entitlements.
The biggest problem with Pérez's legislation, Assembly Bills 1500 and 1501, is the price he may end up paying to get them passed.
Bill language has been floated to amend the California Environmental Quality Act in a significant way, with little debate as the Legislature enters it final weeks. And though Pérez has said he will not support this CEQA reform trial balloon, he was able to get one Republican Assemblyman Brian Nestande of Palm Desert to vote for his scholarship bills, helping it pass the Assembly. Nestande has said, in the wake of the vote, he expects Pérez will follow through on plans to overhaul CEQA. Perez confirmed Wednesday he is interested in "regulatory reforms," but denied suggestions he was trading CEQA reforms for votes.
As we've opined before, CEQA has problems, particularly the way it can easily be leveraged to obtain concessions that have nothing to do with the environment. But any attempt to rework this law, enacted in 1970, deserves careful consideration, not last-minute surgery. Unfortunately, some lawmakers seem all too ready to use a butcher knife.
Under current law, major developments and industrial projects must undergo environmental review, even if they are consistent with a general plan or land use plan that has already undergone CEQA analysis. Under the legislation that has been floated, such projects would be exempt. That raises the prospect that, say, an incinerator proposed on industrial land next to a neighborhood would not have to undergo environmental review and avoid or mitigate any impacts.
We agree that CEQA can trip up construction of urban infill and transit projects, which are preferable to the usual leapfrog development. But the way to handle that is with a statewide planning law that sets across-the-board standards for housing and transportation. The proposal under consideration doesn't include such standards. Indeed, it likely would lead to a race to the bottom, with counties approving general plans that are as sprawl-friendly as possible.
Perez said he fought for his Vernon legislation, in part, to achieve "environmental justice" for residents aggrieved by the city's industries. The CEQA proposal floating in his house would likely lead to environmental injustices. Is that a fair price to enact a pet piece of legislation?