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NEWS ANALYSIS : Wilson Plan Sets Tougher Attitude on Environment

TIMES ENVIRONMENTAL WRITER

It was like a smart bomb quietly inserted into Gov. Pete Wilson’s State of the State speech and easily overlooked amid more dramatic oratory about income tax cuts and welfare reform.

Avoiding any mention of specific targets, the sparsely worded proposal for a sweeping constitutional amendment could permanently change the way much business is done in Sacramento and make it a lot tougher for public interest groups, and especially environmentalists, to pass new laws.

The proposal sets a tough new tone on the environment for Wilson, who has shown increasing impatience with regulations but who came into office four years ago promising to “secure the spirituality of Big Sur and safeguard cathedrals of redwoods.”

Wilson’s proposed amendment to the state Constitution would make it as hard to pass new regulations as it is now to enact new taxes. Wilson contends that regulations have the same effect as taxes, imposing billions of dollars in new costs and helping to drive businesses out of the state.

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“Regulation is increasing at such an incredible pace that it really is a form of new taxation and ought to be treated that way,” said Wilson’s deputy press secretary, Paul Kranhold.

Wilson’s amendment would require a two-thirds vote of the Legislature to pass any bill that imposes new regulatory costs. In other words, the amendment calls for the same super-majority needed to enact new or higher taxes. And just as the two-thirds requirement has been a roadblock to higher taxes, it is meant to have a similar effect on new regulations that come with a price tag, as most environmental regulations do.

Decrying the proposal, environmental groups are calling it the ultimate act of betrayal by a governor who once wooed them but is now more interested in currying favor with conservative voters.

“This is the handiwork of someone trying to get on the Newt Gingrich anti-government bandwagon in time for the next national election,” said Jerry Meral, head of the Planning and Conservation League.

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The Wilson Administration disputes the charge, but even some Republicans say they detect a different emphasis these days in the governor’s treatment of environmental issues.

In his budget message this week, Wilson alluded to plans to amend the state’s endangered species act and the California Environmental Quality Act, the targets of longstanding criticism by agricultural and business interests.

“Comparatively speaking, I would note a difference in his approach,” said state Sen. Tom Campbell (R-Stanford). “Recently, there has been more of a focus on employment and on the barriers to employment which the environment can be.”

But Campbell attributed the change more to California’s economic crisis than to any national political ambitions that Wilson might hold.

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“After three consecutive years of job losses it’s natural for the governor to concern himself with why we are losing jobs and businesses,” he said.

Yet the scope of the proposed amendment came as a surprise even to industry groups that have been lobbying for regulatory relief.

“It’s further right than we would even be,” said Dick Kreutzen, a lobbyist for the Western States Petroleum Assn.

Nonetheless, Kreutzen welcomed the proposal, saying that it would force the state to adopt more cost-effective approaches to environmental protection.

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The impact of the governor’s proposal would not be limited to the environment. Its broad reach is designed to curb the expansion of regulation by state government in a number of areas.

“It’s going to affect everything from industrial health and safety to chiropractic licensing,” said Michael Kahoe, deputy director of the California Environmental Protection Agency. “It will affect consumer protection, building codes, regulations on how freeways are designed . . . any place where government regulation can affect the cost of doing business.”

As with any constitutional amendment, Wilson’s proposal must be approved by a majority of the voters in the state. But before it goes on the ballot, the proposal will require a two-thirds vote of the Legislature. The earliest it could be on a statewide ballot, according to spokesmen for the Wilson Administration, is spring, 1996, when it would coincide with the next presidential primary.

Convinced that Wilson is grandstanding to a national audience, critics within the environmental movement point out that he does not need a constitutional amendment in order to block costly regulations.

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“He already has the veto power,” said John White, a lobbyist for the Sierra Club. “He has control of the executive branch, of virtually all the agencies that promulgate new regulations. So he doesn’t need this, except that he’s playing to a larger audience. This is Wilson’s spin on the contract for America.”

Members of the Wilson Administration acknowledged that the governor does have broad authority to block new regulations. “But we are looking beyond this governor’s term of office,” said Kahoe.

Environmentalists say that if the amendment with its super-majority requirement had been in place during the past decade, many protections would not have made it through the Legislature.

“When you think of the major laws that have passed in the last 10 years, on air toxics, recycling or oil spills, for example, none of them would have made it,” White said. “This amendment would give the veto to the most conservative and anti-environmental elements of the business community and the Legislature.”

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On the other hand, James Strock, the top official of the California Environmental Protection Agency, said the amendment would provide badly needed incentives for industries to come up with proposals for protecting the environment.

Strock was referring to a feature of the amendment that would waive the two-thirds requirement for enacting legislation that allows for the repeal of regulations of equal or greater cost. “It could trigger dramatic innovation in environmental regulation because it gives industry a reason to come with new, cost-saving approaches to protecting the environment,” Strock said.

* NOT GOOD ENOUGH

Wilson and Riordan criticize delay on L.A. smog rules. A26

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