Going into 2013, Darrell Steinberg, leader of the state Senate at the time, set his sights on one of the most ambitious tasks a California legislator could tackle: reforming the California Environmental Quality Act.
Long the bane of business interests, the act known as CEQA is a darling of environmentalists, who say it protects vulnerable ecosystems from encroaching development. It requires extensive studies before major construction projects can begin, and extensive mitigation efforts afterward. Critics of the 40-year-old law say its provisions needlessly drive up the cost of doing business in California and delay – or sometimes kill – projects of tremendous economic benefit.
Some political observers were skeptical that Steinberg could find the support from the environmental and business communities to enact meaningful reform, but the ever-optimistic senator repeatedly pledged it would be among his top priorities for 2013.
A liberal Democrat from Sacramento with sterling environmental street cred, Steinberg had reason to be optimistic: Joining him in his efforts was Sen. Michael Rubio, a moderate Democrat from the Central Valley with big support from the business community, and Gov. Jerry Brown, who signaled he would support reform. As a new year dawned over the capitol’s dome, there was a sense that maybe CEQA reform could become a reality.
But things didn’t turn out that way. Rubio unexpectedly resigned from the Legislature that February to accept a job with Chevron and spend more time with his family. That left Steinberg to push legislation on his own.
Talks around the bill dragged on for months, but key provisions of Senate Bill 731 weren’t put on paper until well into the legislative session. When language was finally inserted, interests on all sides found things they didn’t like. Ultimately, the bill was shelved, with minor CEQA reform provisions inserted into another bill designed to fast-track the building of a new arena for Sacramento’s NBA team, the Kings.
“I think, in the end, nobody was happy with it,” Kathryn Phillips, director of Sierra Club California, said of the Legislature’s attempt.
That’s the rub: The interests involved are so far apart on CEQA. Phillips, for example, said the environmental community would just as soon not see CEQA changed at all. “If it’s not broken, don’t fix it,” she said. “We don’t view it as broken.”
On the other hand, the League of California Cities supports changes to CEQA that would prevent project opponents from dumping last-minute challenges. Environmentalists are worried such changes would gut the law.
But Kirstin Kolpitcke, a legislative representative for the league, said it’s not just that environmentalists don’t want change and others do. It’s that the interests who want change can’t agree on what the problem is with CEQA. The environmental community is united in its opposition to change, while the change-minded interest groups are stuck fighting among themselves.
In other words, the environmentalists have a simple message and the reformers have a muddled mess. It’s no wonder Kolpitcke isn’t optimistic about a chance for CEQA reform. “I don’t know that there’s political will to get CEQA reform done,” she said.
Jennifer Hernandez, an attorney for the CEQA Working Group, a coalition of business, local government and other interests pushing for reform, echoed those comments, saying that CEQA today operates on a “transactional model.” That means individual projects will receive CEQA exemptions from the Legislature if the developers agree to pre-hiring collective bargaining agreements with labor unions and get the blessing of the environmental community.
Hernandez called this way of doing business “morally bankrupt,” but wasn’t ready to say CEQA reform was hopeless. Her reason? She thinks if the press publicizes how CEQA is actually applied in California, eventually there will be calls for real reform.
Meanwhile, Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins says she’s personally committed to seeing CEQA reform through, but her office had few specifics.
“She is committed to having meaningful conversations and working with all sides of the debate,” Atkins spokesman John Casey said in an email. “Her end goal will be to develop thoughtful reform that actually accomplishes the goals all sides claim to want, a balanced approach that both protects the environment and allows for more certainty for the business community. This balancing act is hard and that is why it will require a lot of work and discussion. She is committed to doing that work.”