Bill would let governor protect large projects from lengthy challenges

State lawmakers Thursday were considering sweeping changes to a landmark environmental law with a measure that would allow the governor to exempt large development projects from lengthy court challenges.

The proposal is modeled on a separate bill that would give that benefit to developers of a proposed football stadium in downtown Los Angeles.

Introduction of the bill in the final days of the legislative session, amid a flurry of other activity, raised alarm among some environmentalists.


In another late move, Gov. Jerry Brown proposed a $1-billion tax package that included cuts for Californians who take the standard deduction in their income tax filings. Brown won two Republican votes for the plan in the Assembly, enough to clear the two-thirds threshold for passage there. But it was unclear whether the state Senate would support the measure.

The governor proposed eliminating a loophole in the corporate tax code that benefits companies with large workforces outside California. He would distribute the resulting money through a variety of tax cuts for small businesses and by adding $1,000 to the standard deduction for individual state taxpayers.

Brown celebrated the deal at a midday news conference with two Assembly Republicans but acknowledged that he had not sold the measure, ABX1 40 by Felipe Fuentes (D-Sylmar), in the Senate. “We celebrate small victories,” he said. “We’re not quite over the finish line yet.”

The Senate did pass a bill that would make it illegal to carry an unconcealed firearm, targeting an increasingly popular practice of some gun enthusiasts. The measure would exempt law enforcement officers, but its fate was uncertain: It requires approval of minor changes in the Assembly, where Speaker John A. Pérez (D-Los Angeles), has been feuding with the bill’s author, Anthony Portantino (D-La Cañada Flintridge).

Democrats in the Senate said the bill was a common-sense step.

“This is not the Wild West,” said Sen. Kevin De Leon (D-Los Angeles). “How discomforting can it be if you walk into a restaurant, a Starbucks, a Mickey D’s, and all of a sudden you see someone with a handgun?”

The measure, AB 144, passed 21 to 18. All Senate Republicans voted against it. “Don’t turn law-abiding citizens into criminals,” said Sen. Joel Anderson (R-San Diego).

But much of the day’s attention was on the effort to redefine the landmark California Environmental Quality Act, something that has been mulled by legislative leaders for months but was unveiled with only one day remaining before lawmakers adjourn Friday.

The impetus is the push by the Anschutz Entertainment Group to have its proposed 72,000-seat football stadium excused from protracted litigation that can occur under environmental law.

The Assembly passed a bill granting that favor earlier this week, and legislators asked why one project was singled out for special treatment.

The new bill would require that legal challenges be resolved within 175 days for projects estimated to cost at least $100 million, if the governor selects them for such treatment during the next three years. The projects would have to win certification that they are environmentally friendly.

Senators acknowledged that the broader measure would probably have to pass if they are to approve the AEG stadium bill. Its principal co-author, Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento), said it was justified by the state’s 12% unemployment rate.

“This is a recession,” Steinberg said. “People are hurting, and we have to use every tool in our disposal to help people get back to work, and do so in a way that does not undermine our very important environmental laws.”

The bill, AB 900, would allow a wide variety of projects — residential, commercial, sports, cultural, entertainment, renewable energy and recreational — to apply to the governor for expedited treatment. They would have to be located on an under-utilized property in a developed area.

Some environmental groups said they were open to streamlining legal reviews that can take years but complained about the proposal being introduced less than 36 hours before the end of the legislative year.

“The concern is the chipping away at [the California Environmental Quality Act] without looking at the long-term consequences,” said Bruce Reznik, executive director of the Planning and Conservation League. “Is this going to really result in better projects and more jobs?”

The governor’s ability to fast-track projects would expire in 2015, but there is no limit on the number he could green-light by then.

“I’m concerned about the lack of a cap on projects,” said David Pettit, senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council. “There are a lot of projects that could get under the wire by 2015.”

In other action, legislators sent to the governor a bill that would require motorists passing bicyclists to stay at least three feet away, and a measure that would ban the use of credit checks in most hiring processes.

Times staff writers Jack Dolan, Shane Goldmacher, Michael J. Mishak and Nicholas Riccardi contributed to this report.