When Ronald Reagan signed the California Environmental Quality Act four decades ago, it was portrayed as a process that would encourage managers of public and private projects to pay attention to and mitigate potentially adverse effects.
Over time, however, complying with CEQA became not only a torturous slog through very expensive red tape – one that elevated complex process over final product – but a tool for interest groups to engage in what can only be described as extortion.
Do something for us, they could and sometimes would implicitly threaten, or we’ll tie up your project in court for years or even decades and it will die an expensive, lingering death. Many payoff demands have absolutely nothing to do with environmental protection.
CEQA has cried out for reform that would preserve its original intent and reduce gratuitous red tape and the opportunities for extortion.
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Gov. Jerry Brown has joined business groups in seeking reform, referring to CEQA, as now practiced, as “a blob.” But the environmental and labor groups that have used its provisions effectively have resisted major change.
They dismissed Brown’s reform outline out of hand; meanwhile, Senate President Darrell Steinberg’s milder reform proposal (Senate Bill 731) has been criticized by business reform advocates as inadequate and in some respects worse than the status quo.
With just days remaining in the 2013 legislative session, it’s generally agreed that major CEQA reforms are very unlikely this year.
Meanwhile, Steinberg is refocusing his effort on another late-blooming measure (Senate Bill 743) that would overhaul CEQA for just one project, a new basketball arena in downtown Sacramento to keep the Kings team from moving elsewhere.
The streamlined CEQA process that Steinberg advocates for his hometown arena is pretty much what business groups would like to have for everything. Environmental groups oppose it – but labor appears to be aboard, since Sacramento officials have guaranteed that all the jobs attached to the arena project would be unionized.
This is crony capitalism at its worst – giving one project special treatment because it happens to be in the district of the Senate’s top leader, thus lining the pockets of team owners, labor unions and everyone else affiliated with the new arena, while denying similar treatment to everyone else.
This is not, unfortunately, a new phenomenon. We saw the same thing a few years ago for two proposed football stadiums in Los Angeles. But the message it sends is poisonous – the notion that one must enlist powerful politicians as allies if one is to receive a pass through red tape.
Is it any wonder that Californians are increasingly alienated from those they elect to serve the larger public interest?