I love football and football stadiums. I love the Los Angeles Coliseum, even when the Trojans beat my beloved Buckeyes there. Years ago, as a Long Beach City Council member, I tried to draw support for a coastal stadium in hopes of attracting a National Football League franchise.
I wasn’t persuaded by the almost universal conclusion of economists that football stadiums rarely deliver on their promise of an economic boon, or those who claim stadiums actually result in a net loss of jobs. After all, NFL teams promote regional pride and identity as well as an entertainment opportunity for the community. As an L.A. County resident, I truly believe we deserve an NFL team, and I support efforts to attract one. As a state senator, however, I’m more concerned with the rule of law.
That’s why I’m heartsick that the pigskin should play such a central role in the worst piece of legislation I have seen in my 11 years in the Legislature. In the name of football and with the promise of a new stadium, the state Senate panicked, plain and simple.
In a desperate bid to hasten new jobs, the Legislature passed a bill that allows the developers to build a stadium in the City of Industry while ignoring the California Environmental Quality Act, or CEQA. It was a perfect example of haste making waste, because the mitigations required under CEQA may well have resulted in even more jobs. Worse, it was the first time in the 37 years since Gov. Ronald Reagan signed the law that the Legislature kicked it aside like that.
CEQA is not just another law. It is an amazing tool to help keep our air clean and our children healthy. It is the foundation of our battles against smog. Back in the 1960s, before CEQA, the region endured more than 100 Stage 1 smog alerts a year. On those days, many schoolchildren were called in from the playgrounds to lay their heads on their desks, in hopes that inactivity and shallow breathing might protect their vulnerable lungs.
Thanks to laws such as CEQA and the federal Clean Air Act, Stage 1 alerts are rare now. And, amazingly, our air quality has improved despite the fact that our population has more than doubled. These quality-of-life gains were not made at the expense of business either. While CEQA softened our impact on the environment, our economy grew threefold.
Unfortunately, I believe the Legislature just opened the floodgates to future CEQA exemptions that will not only weaken its protections but could eventually do away with the law altogether. A recent opinion article in this paper stated that this particular exemption would not create such precedent because this is a unique situation and the project site had undergone significant environmental review already. This is a terribly naive view of how Sacramento works.
There was absolutely nothing unique about this project, other than the fact that it was championed by an influential developer and backed by powerful labor unions. I guarantee this is only the first of an endless stream of proposed exemptions. Many will claim that their proposals also have unique circumstances and altruistic environmental benefits, and all will argue that the current recession makes their project imperative.
Where will it end?
For nearly four decades, Californians have proved that job creation and environmental protections go hand in hand. Are those days over? Will we continue to use the recession as an excuse to ignore our safeguards? Will exemptions become the norm?
Citing the need to stimulate the local economy, San Joaquin Valley legislators, for example, might write bills that would exempt a developer’s proposed new town from the statutory requirements for general plan consistency, water supply assessments and environmental mitigation.
The same is true of our urban core. Without CEQA, the poor neighborhoods of South-Central Los Angeles would be hard-pressed to fend off high-impact land uses that add jobs and turn a profit for developers but ignore the effects on the health of local children and other residents.
If we continue to chip away at CEQA, the siren song of easy money can lead to environmental consequences that will last for generations.
Undoubtedly, there are many actions the Legislature can take to spur job growth. But abandoning the rules that have made California more livable should not be one of them.