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Monday, April 8, 2013
Unions pose key obstacle to CEQA reform: Editorial
From liberal Gov. Jerry Brown
to conservative business groups, California leaders sound determined to
make this the year the state finally fixes its signature environmental
law. With such broad support, reform of the California Environmental
Quality Act should be a fait accompli -- but it's not.
The reason will be familiar and frustrating to anybody who sees the
slow pace of other predicted reforms, like those needed to rein in
public-employee pension costs and improve childhood education. Labor
unions are among the opponents of changes they say would weaken CEQA,
and unions have disproportionate influence with the Democratic elected
officials who rule the Legislature.
The likely result is another year of delay on CEQA reform or a
watered-down effort to make the law work to protect the environment and
state residents without straying beyond its intent and needlessly
impeding the economy.
Before Sacramento can claim progress on the issue and Californians
can be optimistic of real results, lawmakers must turn platitudes into
policy by putting meat on the framework proposed by state Sen. Darrell
Steinberg in a bill introduced in February.
Easy? No. It's a complicated issue that defies simple political
categorization -- this is a pro-environment law signed in 1970 by
Republican Gov. Ronald Reagan (to supplement a U.S. law signed by
Republican President Richard Nixon) that now faces a business-backed
modernization effort under Democrat Brown.
The trick will be to strike the right balance and get the details
right by hearing out all sides and building the final reform legislation
with full public input and scrutiny instead of hashing something
together at the last minute as the Legislature has tried in the past.
The general goal must not be to prevent CEQA from achieving its noble
purpose of requiring the proponents of land development and
construction projects to document the expected effect on the
surroundings and lay out plans to limit damage (the oft-discussed
environmental impact reports, or EIRs).
The goal should be to prevent CEQA from being abused by local
governments, agricultural land owners, business rivals and labor unions
to block or delay projects they don't like for reasons that may have
nothing to do with concerns about the effects on air, water, wildlife
and residents' quality of life.
More specifically, this means simplifying CEQA's provisions and
removing duplications of the more than 100 other environmental laws that
have been added to the state's books in the past 42 years. This means
creating more certainty about standards and procedures and reducing
chances to raise last-minute challenges to bog down projects.
For environmentalists, the benefit of a streamlined process is that
public officials no longer would be tempted into the slimy practice of
exempting favored construction projects from CEQA review, as has
happened with the downtown Los Angeles and city of Industry
football-stadium proposals and as Brown wanted to do with the California
Labor unions should support CEQA reform that could speed up approval
for many construction projects -- and thus quicken the creation of jobs.
Unions say publicly they oppose reform because they want to protect the environment for their members and communities.
But in fact they oppose reform because it threatens their ability to
cynically use "environmental" challenges as leverage in contract
negotiations or to thwart anti-union businesses.
Hope that the state's landmark environmental law would be modernized
rose last summer when Brown spoke up in favor, calling CEQA reform "the
Lord's work." Unfortunately there is no Lord on the Senate Environmental
Quality Committee, and the work will have to be done by Democratic
politicians under the usual pressure from their union benefactors.
Reform can -- and must -- get done. But a familiar obstacle remains.