Enough of Groundhog Day: Save CEQA
By Jenesse Miller
One of my favorite movies is Groundhog Day, where Bill Murray's weatherman character is trapped living the same day over and over again. But one of my least-favorite real-life versions of Groundhog Day--where several interest groups try to push through major changes to California's most important environmental law at the last minute--is playing out yet again in the state Capitol in the waning days of the legislative session.
The Los Angeles Times warns: “Major change to one of California’s most important laws could happen literally in the dark of night."
For more than 40 years, the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) has empowered Californians to safeguard the health and well-being of their families and neighborhoods, and protect their communities from environmental toxins and other dangers. CEQA holds developers and government agencies accountable for the environmental impacts of development projects and gives the public a real voice in analyzing the impacts of projects – from strip malls to power plants – on their communities.
CEQA is like an environmental bill of rights, but not everybody is a fan.
From a San Jose Mercury News opinion piece:
Californians may not think about CEQA often, but we've all shared its benefits. For four decades CEQA has delivered cleaner air and water, more plentiful fish and wildlife, less traffic congestion and smarter public services. But corporate lobbyists are working behind the scenes to gut this landmark law -- and it's being done with no public hearings and little public input.
A press conference held by several groups on Monday confirmed the rumors circulating for weeks that the end of this legislative session would mirror the last several sessions, when a number of bills attacking CEQA and exempting big development projects were proposed. As reported by the Ventura County Star:
In what has become an annual late-summer ritual that coincides with the end of the California Legislature's lawmaking session, a push to make changes in the state's landmark environmental law appears to be picking up steam in the Capitol.
A coalition of business groups held a news conference Monday to lay out the principles for what it calls a "modernization" of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). Jim Earp, executive director of a business-labor group called the California Alliance for Jobs, said the coalition wants to see those principles incorporated in legislation — "and if there's an opening in these last two weeks of session, we're going to take advantage of it."
Number one, "modernization" is a euphamism for "gutting." Number two, Mr. Earp knows full well there is an "opening" in the final days of the legislative session. A version of a proposal that guts CEQA is being floated right now, authored by state Senator Michael Rubio, according to the LA Times:
A memo couched in legislative language has been circulating in the Capitol. The changes it calls for reportedly would severely undermine the law, rather than reforming it, by exempting from litigation development projects that meet city and county general plans. But many of those plans are weak or outdated, and fall short of modern environmental standards.
More problematic is that no one outside the Legislature appears to know the language or source of this document. No author is listed, but on Tuesday Sen. Michael Rubio (D-East Bakersfield) confirmed that he was gutting a bill about fisheries management and inserting language to amend CEQA, though its wording would be different from the memo. The new version of the bill will be introduced Wednesday or Thursday.
Ah yes, the old "gut and amend" trick, where lawmakers patch together a "Frankenlaw" without the proper review process and hope it doesn't hurt anybody. This approach is seriously flawed and threatens both our environment and our democracy.
Fortunately, many of the environmental champions in the legislature have asked Assembly Speaker John Pérez and Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg to reject this last-minute CEQA gutting. The letter to both leaders signed by 34 lawmakers says:
"Like many important laws, CEQA is not perfect and could probably be improved while retaining its many benefits - but only if such improvements are undertaken in a good faith process and are crafted very carefully. Unfortunately, the proposals we have seen and heard about reflect major changes that have not been vetted and are being advanced by special interests in an end-of-session power play."
You too can be an environmental champion and help put a stop to this power play: Sign the California League of Conservation Voters' open letter to the legislature and Governor Jerry Brown at SaveCEQA.com.