J.B. says reforming CEQA is ‘Lord’s Work’

Aug. 28, 2012

By Wayne Lusvardi

In Archibald MacLeish’s 1958 play, “J.B.,” the devil disguised as a popcorn vendor destroys the property and children of a wealthy banker named “J.B.” to test his faithfulness to God.  God, portrayed as a balloon vendor in a circus, offers to restore J.B.’s life if he returns to the religion he rejected. J.B. selects a different path and is content with his choice.  “J.B.” is a modern version of the Biblical story of Job: hence the title “J.B.”

In the present day version of this morality play, California Gov. Jerry Brown, playing the role of “J.B.,” is trying to disguise his deal with the devil for the replacement of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) with what might be called the “Selective Environmental Quality Act” (SEQA).  The governor, in consort with the legislature — or the devil — will pick pet projects and pet constituencies for exemption from California’s laws.  He will play God.  

Many newspapers have reported that Brown has already cut a deal to get corporations to fund a $1 billion tax increase for college scholarships for undocumented college students in return for exempting certain pet projects from CEQA requirements.  It’s a deal made in heaven, or maybe made in the political underworld where “outsiders rarely know all the games insiders play.” 

CEQA Reform is “God’s Work”

In Act Two of the play: Brown has declared that reforming CEQA is “the Lord’s work.”  But Brown already passed a set of so-called CEQA reforms back on Sept. 27, 2011, under Assembly Bill 900 (Streamlining Bill) and Senate Bill 292 (Los Angeles Football Stadium Exemption).  What makes this new proposed CEQA reform necessary?

What Brown appears to be signaling is that CEQA is up for sale to the highest bidder in return for highly symbolic taxes that buy votes of pet political constituencies for the November election.  So what California is likely to end up getting in return is an exemption from environmental laws for Brown’s pet California High-Speed Rail Authority. Think of it as similar to the wealthy banker “J.B.” in Archibald MacLeish’s play trying to cut a deal with the devil.

Now most Californians are mature enough to understand what is going on and to look the other way if the greater public good is served.  Famous liberal Christian theologian Reinhold Niebuhr called this “realism,” or realpolitik.  We must get our hands dirty to do any good.  OK.  So what good will come of this deal?

Selling Their Soul for Mess of Pottage?

Many Californians will probably ask: What good may come from fast tracking the proverbial Bullet Train to nowhere? And what good will come if funding is pulled by Congress for the Bullet Train if a new administration is installed in Washington, D.C., in two months, and federal funding is cut?  And what will these scholarships go for?  More needed engineers to create needed new industries and jobs, or more “pet” college programs for more “pet” political constituencies?

The state unemployment fund is running in the red to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars, Med-Cal and Cal-WORKS are being funded out of the state budget deficit, and California only has six months of water storage even without a drought.  And this is what the governor and the Legislature are preoccupied with?

Isn’t what Brown is doing with CEQA exemptions the same as what President Barack Obama did with all the waivers for Obamacare mainly granted to political contributors?

Have corporations sold their souls for a “mess of pottage,” in Biblical terms?

Government is not rational or even just; it is a messy process of “muddling through,” as political scientist Charles Lindblom once famously said. But what will be the consequences of such a capricious law?  Have California democracy and the rule of law been replaced with autocratic patrimonialism and oligarchy?

In MacLeish’s play, the wife of fictional character “J.B.” says:

“You wanted justice, didn’t you?  There isn’t any…there is only love.”

Former California attorney general, now governor, Jerry Brown apparently believes California law and justice can be based on “love.”

And in California, you want the rule of law without political favor and for the greater public good.  Whether what California ends up getting with Brown’s CEQA reform deal is for the greater public good is each voter’s decision at the ballot box in November.



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