Democrats now see downside of CEQA

under-constructionFeb. 11, 2013

By Steven Greenhut

SACRAMENTO — Although many of California’s legislative Democrats are eager to “test drive” the new two-thirds majorities their caucuses hold in the Assembly and Senate — i.e., pushing the limits of their power to advance their progressive agenda — others are focusing on a sensible reform that almost everyone knows is slowing job growth.

Passed in 1970 at the height of the nation’s push to clean up the environment, the California Environmental Quality Act created a convoluted bureaucratic process to “mitigate” environmental harm from major new projects. One can argue whether the high costs the act imposes in terms of delays and reports have helped preserve the state’s ecology, but there’s no question it delays the construction of just about everything.

CEQA (pronounced See-Kwa) has been a boon not only to enterprising consultants who prepare foot-high stacks of Environmental Impact Statements, but for lawyers, NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) groups, environmental activists and labor unions that manipulate the process for cynical reasons that have nothing to do with identifying and reducing potential environmental harm.

NIMBYs use it to oppose seemingly anything that might be built in their neighborhood. Some environmentalists are adamantly “no-growth” and use it to oppose any and all projects. We know what lawyers get out of it.

Union suits

Unions routinely file CEQA suits — or threaten to do so — to coerce developers into approving union-only project labor agreements. You can only impose so many new costs on a project before you kill it.

In one example of CEQA abuse, a gas station owner used the process to slow down the expansion of a competing gas station across the street. In another case, local residents used CEQA to delay by two years (and add about $3 million in costs to) the construction of a low-income senior-citizens housing project in Berkeley.

The Legislative Analyst’s Office notes that the economic recovery is not resulting in the creation of many new jobs, especially in California. The Democrats’ new group of self-styled moderates, who hold immense power in the state Capitol now that the Republican Party is essentially dead, have made job creation their top priority. So, CEQA is a reasonable target.

Republicans have long pushed for regulatory reform, understanding the role that excessive regulations play in dampening economic growth. Oddly enough, then, one of the first orders of business in the new Democratic-dominated Legislature is an issue that Republicans should applaud.

Gov. Jerry Brown set the stage for CEQA reform in his State of the State address: “We also need to rethink and streamline our regulatory procedures, particularly the California Environmental Quality Act. Our approach needs to be based on consistent standards that provide greater certainty and cut needless delays.”

In his first stint as governor (1975-83), Brown devoted himself to undermining the kind of big infrastructure projects championed by his dad, Gov. Pat Brown. Republican U.S. Rep. Tom McClintock has written about Jerry Brown: “He enacted volumes of environmental regulations that created severe impediments to home and commercial construction, empowering an incipient no-growth movement that began on the most extreme fringe of the environmental cause and quickly spread.”

As state attorney general for four years, Brown used the state’s 2006 global-warming law (Assembly Bill 32) to gum up the works for new development by claiming that many the projects would worsen climate change.

Absolute power

So what’s changed?

Brown and his Democratic allies now have unchecked power in the Capitol, and they don’t want anything snarling the projects they favor, most obviously, high-speed rail. If CEQA has any redeeming features, it is this: It also applies to public projects and forces the government sector to fight the same red tape as the rest of us. If that weren’t the case, there would be no push for reform.

But, again, this is a great bipartisan issue. As former governors Pete Wilson, Gray Davis and George Deukmejian argued in a recent column, “Sadly, documented cases of CEQA abuse include examples where CEQA has stood in the way of renewable-energy projects, infill housing, schools, hospitals, universities, public transit and needed infrastructure. In fact, CEQA is often a direct barrier to the sustainable and environmentally friendly growth that California aspires to achieve.”

Even with such potent support, reforming CEQA isn’t a slam dunk, given expected opposition from environmental groups.

Brown this week got into a highly publicized rhetorical match with Texas Gov. Rick Perry over their respective states’ business climates. Perry has succeeded in luring some California businesses to his lower-tax, lower-regulation state. Brown retorted that new balanced budget as evidence of the Golden State’s rebound.

Brown would do better to acknowledge that California is a tough place to do business and focus on those reforms that actually make California a better place to create jobs. CEQA is a great starting point.

Steven Greenhut is vice president of journalism at the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity. Write to him at: [email protected].


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