SACRAMENTO — Gov. Jerry Brown spoke only two sentences about streamlining environmental regulations in his State of the State address. But they inspired reformers to cheer.
Could have fooled me. I was ready to pounce on him last week for scanty treatment, for kissing off the subject with only a brief reference, a throwaway line.
But I'd have been wrong, say some experts, people who specialize in semantics and nuances.
"The fact he mentioned it at all was a home run with the bases loaded," says Carl Guardino, president and CEO of the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, a trade association. "We were thrilled."
"I was delighted he even mentioned the need for regulatory reform and talked about California losing 1.3 million jobs" during the recession, says Gary Toebben, president and CEO of the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce.
It must be a low bar in Sacramento these days for business groups, what with a Democratic governor and complete Democratic control of the Legislature.
But Brown is on a roll and seemingly can do little wrong, at least that draws harsh criticism. Winning passage of his Proposition 30 tax increase earned him bank vaults of political capital.
"It was one of the finest speeches delivered in our Capitol in the past three decades," gushed Sen. Michael Rubio (D-East Bakersfield), chairman of the Senate Environmental Quality Committee and an advocate of regulatory streamlining.
"When has a governor captured anything so eloquently? So much history and poetry?"
Rubio is a Democrat. But even Republicans were pulling their punches.
Yes, it was a fine speech. Refreshing, in that the governor read from a text, not a teleprompter. It seemed more sincere that way. He wrote it himself as he always does, aides insist. He has no speechwriter.
Brown did a clever thing: He asked the lawmakers seated in the Assembly chamber to hold their applause. That sped things up —and spared him from having to fret about how many times he "was interrupted by applause."
It was vintage Brown: Quoted dead guys. Recalled California's glory. Preached bold vision.
But two things he inexcusably ignored.
One was California's enormous public pension liability. Pensions for state and local employees, including teachers, will cost roughly $500 billion more over the next 16 years than the retirement systems have lined up, says Joe Nation, a Stanford professor who has extensively researched the dilemma.
"It's the most serious financial problem facing the state, and that's why I'm so disappointed that so little attention is being paid to it," says Nation, a former legislator.
The other ignored subject was gun control — on the day that California's Sen. Dianne Feinstein introduced a bill to restore the national ban on assault weapons.
California's gun laws are among the toughest in the nation, but they're weakened by lack of federal controls on interstate trafficking. Brown should be pushing for President Obama's proposals.
But he did offer these two sentences on regulatory reform, tucked snugly between comments about Enterprise Zones and China trade:
"We also need to rethink and streamline our regulatory procedures, particularly the California Environmental Quality Act. Our approach needs to be based more on consistent standards that provide greater certainty and cut needless delays."
One word — "standards" — inspired the reformers, who have formed a "CEQA Working Group," a coalition co-chaired by Guardino and Toebben. "Standards" is a buzzword that's music to their ears.
They're advocating statewide standards for compliance with environmental laws. They believe that would reduce and shorten the lawsuits aimed at torpedoing local development projects.
The environmental quality act — CEQA — was signed by Gov. Ronald Reagan in 1970. It requires developers to undergo a lengthy public process of detailing their projects' potential environmental effects.
"It's a great law," Guardino says. "But it's a great law that's often abused for non-environmental purposes. The law needs to be preserved, but protected from abuse."
Too often, the act isn't used for environmental protection at all. It's the tool of business rivals trying to block competition or labor groups attempting to force unionization. They file — or threaten to file — drawn-out CEQA suits that strong-arm developers into withdrawal or submission.
"Do you take your chance in court or make a deal with the unions or give [the plaintiffs] a lot of money or just walk away?" says veteran CEQA attorney Jennifer Hernandez of San Francisco, who usually represents the project sponsor. She also has environmental credentials as a longtime board member of the California League of Conservation Voters.
"A lot of consultants and lawyers have gotten rich off the act," she adds.
Brown's two sentences alarmed one environmental group, the Natural Resources Defense Council. It urged the governor "to reject efforts to weaken" the act, "which has provided protections against local pollution and health threats … for more than 40 years."
But Sacramento has piled on more than 100 additional environmental laws and created several regulatory agencies in those four decades, Hernandez says. It's time for some integrating and updating.
"I don't remember hearing any Democratic governor talk before about the compelling need to modernize CEQA," Guardino says. "It's like Nixon going to China."
Brown knows that fixing the act is necessary to really make California the engine of economic growth he proclaims it to be.