CEQA Roundup: Have negotiations really stalled?

150 150 Justin Ewers

(photo credit: America 2050Sen. Darrell Steinberg’s reform bill still sitting in an Assembly committee after unanimously passing the Senate.

The clock is officially ticking on the year-long effort to update the California Environmental Quality Act, with the Assembly returning to session this week amid rising concerns that negotiations between business, environmental, and labor groups have stalled.

With a month to go on the legislative calendar—and with Sen. Darrell Steinberg’s reform bill still sitting in an Assembly committee after unanimously passing the Senate—several questions remain: How much of the escalating rhetoric by stakeholders and lawmakers alike is political posturing? And is there still a way to find the “common ground” on CEQA that Steinberg has been seeking?

As stakeholders continue their maneuvering—and with the Assembly speaker backing away from the subject–CEQA may be nearing a political impasse only the governor can resolve.

How it got to this point

While Steinberg has been hosting a series of closed-door negotiations during the summer with representatives from both the reform camp and environmental and labor groups, it was the reformers who went public first last week with a decidedly negative take on where things stand. “Unfortunately, as drafted, SB 731 would not advance true CEQA reform and, in fact, could make approval of worthy and responsible projects even more difficult,” a group of 50 members of the business and local government coalition said in an open letter to Steinberg.

“We know you share our goal of trying to achieve something meaningful and lasting this year,” the letter said, before outlining a set of amendments aimed at reducing CEQA litigation abuse. Noteworthy among the letter’s signatories were the California Chamber of Commerce and the California Manufacturers and Technology Association—two powerful business lobbies that had previously endorsed Steinberg’s legislation.

Two days later, the Los Angeles Times reported that Steinberg’s closed-door negotiations had stalled, quoting Assembly Speaker John Pérez, who expressed skepticism about the chances for reform this year. “There’s not been the real discussion necessary for such a huge issue,” Pérez told the paper, a view he reiterated in a press conference Monday.

With environmental groups reportedly preparing their own list of demands—and with the governor’s office also said to be pushing proposals—Steinberg’s spokespeople have done their best to buy the Senate leader more time: “Business on one side and environmental interests on the other are taking polar opposite views,” Steinberg spokesman Rhys Williams told the LAT. “The Pro Tem is in a position largely central between the two opposing arguments. That usually tells you you're in the right place.”

With the clock officially ticking, it appears Steinberg now must reconcile two major points of disagreement:

The policy obstacles

Since he first introduced his legislation, Steinberg has insisted his aim is to streamline the CEQA process for infill development—part of his own years-long effort to curb urban sprawl and help the state meet its climate goals. At the heart of his approach has been a proposal to set new “thresholds” for environmental impacts like traffic and noise that have become major obstacles to infill projects.

Environmentalists have expressed concern about how these standards would be set, but have not yet publicly commented on Steinberg’s proposal. In their open letter last week, though, would-be reformers may have swept the ground out from under this approach, saying that it may be impractical to set these thresholds statewide.

With the foundation of Steinberg’s legislation apparently wobbling, business groups drew attention to what is not yet in the bill—calling for CEQA litigants to be required to reveal who they are (something the law doesn’t currently require) and demanding CEQA plaintiffs pay for the preparation of the public environmental documents that lead agencies must compile during lawsuits.

The political challenge

While environmental justice groups were quick to dismiss that final proposal, in particular, saying it would negatively impact low-income communities, their opposition may be the least of the challenges Steinberg faces.

Sources privy to the details of Steinberg’s July negotiations say these policy disagreements pale in comparison to a set of political issues that are proving to be CEQA reform’s major sticking point.

Steinberg himself seems to have been surprised by the opposition on the part of some labor leaders, in particular, who have pushed back against his most basic goal: Updating the CEQA process for infill projects. While the Senate leader has tried from the start to write a bill that would drive more of this type of development across the state, sources say some labor leaders view the coming infill wave as the source of a steady stream of jobs—and they are wary of losing CEQA as a tool they can use to reach project labor agreements with developers.

With labor and business at loggerheads—and with the Assembly speaker continuing to back away from the subject—CEQA may be nearing a political impasse only the governor can resolve, sources say.

At a time the governor is already trying to resolve a BART strike and escalating prison crisis, that may present a significant challenge.


Justin Ewers

All stories by: Justin Ewers