CEQA Roundup: Stakes go up after Texas showdown with new opposition forming

150 150 Justin Ewers

Road work signs in San Diego, CA. (Photo Credit: bcgrote/Flickr)

Regulatory reform made its way into headlines all over the state this week, thanks to a high-profile spat between the governors of Texas and California over which state is better for business. (California’s governor made his state proud by dismissing Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s sales pitch about his state’s regulatory and tax perks as “barely a fart.”) 

Political watchers speculated that the tit-for-tat is only likely to fuel the fires of CEQA reform in Sacramento. “Governor Brown loves the Perry move,” The Nooner’s Scott Lay wrote this week, “as it will help keep tax-and-spend demands by the two-thirds Democratic supermajorities under control and will provide additional momentum for CEQA and other regulatory reforms.”

Former governors: Wait, what about us?

The war of words featuring the state’s sitting governor overshadowed an effort by three former California governors to wade into the CEQA fray. In an op-ed in the Sacramento Bee, Govs. George Deukmejian, Pete Wilson, and Gray Davis patted Gov. Brown on the back for calling for reform in his State of the State address: “While CEQA’s original intent must remain intact, now is the time to end reckless abuses of this important law—abuses that are threatening California’s economic vitality, costing jobs and wasting valuable taxpayer dollars.” 

The three former governors—two Republicans and a Democrat—focused in particular on how long the average major transportation project now takes in California (17 years), saying “CEQA is often a major cause of such delays.” They cite a Southern California Association of Governments study that has examined the economic benefits of speeding up these projects by only a few years: In a region like Los Angeles, the study found, CEQA changes that trimmed even five years off the timeline for existing transportation projects would save over $1.25 billion in construction costs and create hundreds of thousands of jobs.

Environmental and labor coalition pushes back

With all of this gubernatorial firepower lining up behind the effort to update CEQA—and with the Los Angeles Newspaper Group running an editorial that argues “this is the year for CEQA reform”—environmental and labor groups pushed back by announcing the creation of a new coalition called “CEQA Works.” 

The group represents more than 50 organizations determined to “shield California’s landmark environmental law from radical reforms.” Coalition-members include political heavyweights like the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Sierra Club, the State Building & Construction Trades Council, and the League of Women Voters. 

The group also trotted out the first poll numbers introduced into this year’s CEQA debate, citing a study that finds 64 percent of California voters “oppose weakening CEQA.”

As the stakes are raised, the Economic Summit took a look this week at the narratives both CEQA Works and would-be reformers are using to tell their side of the CEQA story.

Why are some labor groups against CEQA reform?

At first glance, it might seem odd that labor groups would be fighting changes to CEQA that four California governors say could create millions of jobs. Cesar Diaz, legislative director for State Building and Construction Trades Council of California, shed some light on why working people from roofers and sheet metal workers to boilermakers and elevator constructors have joined the coalition fighting changes to CEQA.

“Through the California Environmental Quality Act we have ensured that the most up to date and efficient technology has been used to create sustainable development,” Diaz said this week. “We have worked with developers and owners to utilize air cooled systems which save millions of acre feet of precious California water. While these systems are initially more expensive, over time they provide savings for ratepayers, improve environmental quality, and provide long-term efficiencies and cost savings. These conversations were made possible only because of CEQA.”

Protecting the environment and keeping costs down may be worthy goals, but reformers continue to maintain organized labor is also determined to hold onto CEQA because the law is a powerful tool for forcing developers to sign project labor agreements for local unions.

The months ahead

The temperature may be going up on the CEQA debate, but it’s not all hardball all the time. Representatives of the two sides sat down for a substantive, hour-long forum this week hosted by the radio station KALW. The robust discussion of CEQA’s strengths and weaknesses featured some of the biggest players on the topic: Two would-be CEQA reformers, Jennifer Hernandez of Holland & Knight and Matt Regan of the Bay Area Council; environmental advocate Tom Adams of the League of Conservation Voters; and Richard Frank, director of UC-Davis’s Environmental Law and Policy Center.

Frank, who has made a career of studying CEQA, had this to say about the prospects for reform:

“Having followed CEQA for just about all of its history, I see a coalescing of political forces around a serious rethinking and new look at CEQA that I don’t think has existed before. You have a business community, both Republicans and Democrats in the State Legislature, and… a progressive governor who’s one of the most outspoken advocates for taking a serious look at CEQA. The political planets are aligned this year, and like it or not, there’s going to be a strong debate, and there likely will be comprehensive legislation we’ll be debating for the next nine months or so.” 

Next up: The February 22 legislative deadline

Still no word from the camps of Sens. Rubio and Steinberg about what that comprehensive legislation might look like, but there are signs Rubio is planning to introduce a bill in the next few weeks to meet the February 22 legislative deadline for bills to be introduced. 

“It’s going to be a work in progress,” Rubio said about his next legislative step in the San Francisco Chronicle. “By no means is the bill we introduce in February going to be the final product.”

In the meantime, the stage is set for a political showdown even Rick Perry can admire.


Justin Ewers

All stories by: Justin Ewers