Dan Walters

Dan Walters: Overhauling CEQA now a hot topic

Published: Tuesday, Aug. 21, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 3A
Last Modified: Tuesday, Feb. 26, 2013 - 8:16 pm

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 state budget negotiations. But the Legislature's dominant Democrats, closely allied with environmental groups, refused to entertain any major changes in CEQA.

Suddenly, however, 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 CEQA 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 CEQA changes, 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 bullet train project, which faces CEQA-based challenges.

Democratic leaders have dropped similar hints.

Assemblyman Brian Nestande, a Republican who helped Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez move his pet bill to change corporate taxes, has indicated that a promise to reform CEQA 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, CEQA is often misused for non-environmental 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 tax increase ballot measure.

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