Reporting from Sacramento -- State lawmakers on Friday unveiled a bill that would expedite legal challenges to a football stadium proposed in downtown Los Angeles, setting off debate over whether legislators should fast-track special treatment for the project in the waning days of this year's session.
Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez and Sen. Alex Padilla, both Democrats from Los Angeles, said their bill would balance the need to uphold environmental laws with the imperative to help the project by Anschutz Entertainment Group, which could create more than 10,000 jobs.
"It would pave the way for the most environmentally friendly sports stadium in the country, in addition to putting thousands of people to work," Padilla said at a Capitol news conference.
But with just four working days next week to act before the Legislature adjourns for the year, many lawmakers said they had yet to see the bill's language. Some said they were in no rush to make a decision by Friday, a deadline AEG has said is necessary to avoid jeopardizing the $1.2-billion project.
"I think it's more important that we get it done right than we get it done fast," said Sen. Joe Simitian (D-Palo Alto), chairman of the Senate Environmental Quality Committee. "Whenever someone tries to sell you something and sets an artificial deadline, it's time to remember the old adage 'buyer beware.' "
Under the plan outlined Friday, AEG still must complete a full environmental review of the 72,000-seat stadium. But any legal challenges would start at the state's court of appeal and have to be resolved within 175 days. That would erase the threat of protracted lawsuits derailing the project. In exchange, the developers would make the stadium carbon neutral and take steps to reduce traffic.
Significantly, the head of the state Senate, President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento), was noncommittal Friday, saying he wanted time to review the intricacies of the 19-page bill.
Pérez disputed the idea that the bill was hurriedly put together behind closed doors. He said legislators had been talking for months about giving the downtown stadium a break. The Legislature in 2009 exempted a competing project in the City of Industry from environmental review.
Twenty of the current bill's 26 co-authors are from Southern California, and they will have to gain support from legislators in other parts of the state — some of whom have voiced skepticism about last-minute approval of a bill customized for one developer — in order to pass it. Some San Diego representatives have raised concerns that giving AEG special preference might result in the Chargers moving north to occupy the stadium.
"I oppose this effort unless it's amended to apply to the entire state," Fletcher said. "Los Angeles isn't the only city to undertake this kind of effort, and if the process is broken, the fix should apply to the entire state."
AEG Chief Executive Tim Leiweke argued his project represented an extraordinary opportunity for Southern California that warranted the targeted bill.
"Approval of the legislation will ensure thousands of good-paying jobs, and a true economic boost for our local economies while building a new event and convention center for Los Angeles — all while protecting the environment … and at no cost to the taxpayers," he said in a statement.
But as details of the bill emerged Friday, environmental activists weighed in with new objections.
An attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, who had said Thursday that he tentatively supported the idea of an expedited court review, said Friday that the bill contained too many loopholes for the group to back.
As proposed, David Pettit said in a statement, the deal would "give AEG special treatment in return for things that AEG would need to do anyway."
"This weak, last-minute back room deal is a missed opportunity for Los Angeles and a dangerous precedent for California," he said, asserting that the bill does not contain provisions to ensure that AEG meets goals for reducing air pollution and traffic congestion in a timely way.
Doubts were also raised by David Allgood, Southern California director of the California League of Conservation Voters, who said lawmakers should take more time to work out a way to enforce environmental protections.
"Our concern is the neighbors around the stadium are going to bear the pollution burden," Allgood said.
And public interest lawyers contended that special legal procedures inflicted an unfair burden on the state court system, which has seen its budget gutted. There already are vast delays in resolving even routine divorce cases, said Lea-Ann Tratten of the Consumer Attorneys of California.
"Someone needs to call pass interference on the Legislature," Tratten said. "The proposal appears to place unreasonable demands on an already impacted appellate court system."