Reporting from Sacramento -- State legislators Friday approved changes in California’s environmental law that could speed construction of a proposed football stadium in downtown Los Angeles, as well as other large projects that the governor would choose.
They also bargained into the night over Gov. Jerry Brown’s proposal to reshape state taxes.
A bill that would end the state’s battle with Amazon.com by allowing the Internet giant to wait until at least September 2012 to collect state sales tax passed both houses on bipartisan votes. The measure, AB 155, is by Assemblyman Charles Calderon (D-Whittier).
Also in the a whirlwind of activity on the last day of this year’s session, Democrats muscled through a bill that would permit as many as 100,000 child-care workers to unionize. The measure could expand the dues-paying ranks of labor unions that are among the party’s main financial backers.
The Assembly approved a last-minute measure that would kick all initiatives to the November ballot. More voters — and more liberal ones — are expected at the polls for general elections than for midyear primary elections. Its fate was uncertain in the Senate.
Brown unveiled his $1-billion tax plan Thursday. It cleared the Assembly that night, with two Republican votes providing the two-thirds margin needed for tax measures. Final approval was uncertain after a Senate committee passed it Friday morning but senators from both parties requested adjustments.
The governor’s proposal would end a provision that rewards corporations with large workforces outside the state. It would dedicate some of the savings to millions of California families by increasing the standard income tax deduction by $1,000, and it would give tax breaks to small businesses.
Brown did not say whether he would sign the bill to let the proposed stadium avoid protracted litigation, but in an interview, he endorsed a companion measure that would allow him to grant similar relief to other big projects certified as environmentally friendly.
“The CEQA reforms are an effort to improve the jobs climate,” Brown said referring to the 40-year-old California Environmental Quality Act, which the new proposal would amend. “I think that will be good.”
The measure, AB 900 by Senate leader Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) and others, would allow the governor to require that courts take no more than 175 days to decide environmental challenges to specific projects. Litigation would begin in the state Court of Appeal, whose ruling could be challenged only in California’s Supreme Court. Currently, lawsuits and appeals can drag on for years.
Democrats, who unnerved some of their environmentalist allies by backing the bill, said it would help create jobs. “We all agree we have an obligation to do everything in our power to try to help to put Californians back to work,” said Steinberg.
To qualify, projects would have to cost more than $100 million and win certification from the U.S. Green Building Council. But that certification is not granted until developments are built, said Katy Robinson, administrator of the council’s Los Angeles office.
Lawmakers said they would adjust the bill next year to address that conundrum. Steinberg said the state couldn’t wait “to get every single detail right.”
John Zinner, a consultant who helps developers meet the council’s standards, said they are the wrong yardstick for fast-tracking big projects. He noted that developers can gain certification without addressing traffic, often the main source of complaints about urban construction.
“I’m a little leery of tying relief from the environmental quality act to green building standards,” Zinner said, noting that a builder can get the council’s top rating without doing much to prevent a new office tower, for example, from sitting in a sea of gridlocked cars.
The bill was unveiled 36 hours before the end of the lawmaking year, and senators did not receive an analysis of it until 3:30 a.m. Friday.
The measure was inspired by the stadium bill, another late proposal, which advocates said would help propel a project that could create desperately needed jobs. The measure, SB 292 by Sen. Alex Padilla (D-Pacoima), passed the Assembly earlier this week and cleared the Senate on a 32-7 vote Friday. It would require that the Farmers Field stadium, proposed by Anschutz Entertainment Group, have provisions to reduce traffic.
“Today’s vote sends a very, very strong message to the NFL that Farmers Field will happen,” said AEG President and Chief Executive Officer Timothy J. Leiweke. “We can now focus our efforts on securing an NFL team for Los Angeles.”
Padilla said the development would create more than 10,000 construction jobs and a similar number once Farmers Field began hosting football games. “We can provide an economic stimulus … which [also] protects our environment,” Padilla told his colleagues.
A few senators balked, noting that the team that could occupy the stadium might come from their own districts.
“It’s a one-project, one-company bill, and I don’t like that,” said Sen. Christine Kehoe (D-San Diego). “And more than that, it could easily be an escape route for our own football team, the San Diego Chargers, to leave my city and go Los Angeles.”
The Anschutz company and its myriad backers pushed hard for approval. AEG enlisted fans to send more than 39,000 emails to legislators. Unions held a sit-in at the office of one Long Beach senator who had hesitated to support the bill.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell noted that the downtown project competes with a proposed stadium in the City of Industry. That one won an environmental waiver from Sacramento in 2009.
“We have two alternatives there in the Los Angeles market,” Goodell said in an interview Thursday, “and we’re going to continue to work with both parties.”
While the stadium and environmental bills won bipartisan support, the child-care unionization measure devolved into a bitter partisan debate. Democrats passed versions of it for the past three years, only to see it vetoed by former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican. It’s unclear what action Brown, a Democrat, would take.
Republicans accused Democrats of trying to bolster union ranks at the expense of taxpayers, who they said might have to pay more for their child care.
“I don’t know the last time we unionized something and the costs went down,” said Assemblyman Tim Donnelly, (R-San Bernardino).
The measure, AB 101 by Steinberg and Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez (D-Los Angeles), would permit organizing of home-based child-care workers who receive state subsidies for looking after low-income children. It would also apply to adults who are paid by the taxpayers to care for younger relatives.
Democrats initially estimated that 40,000 workers would be eligible for union membership under the bill, but a legislative analysis pegged the number between 80,000 and 100,000.
Democrats said the measure was needed to give child-care workers clout. “These providers work on the front lines and deserve a voice at the table,” said Pérez.
The Assembly approved minor amendments to a measure that would outlaw the carrying of an unconcealed gun. The bill, AB 144 by Assemblyman Anthony Portantino (D-La Cañada Flintridge), now goes to Brown. Both houses also approved AB 183 by Assemblywoman Fiona Ma (D-San Francisco), which would make it illegal for food markets to sell alcoholic beverages using automated checkout machines.
Legislators kicked some big issues down the road. Rather than tackle the thorny subject of pension reform, they created a panel that could act on the matter before the next lawmaking year begins Jan. 1.
Also uncertain was the fate of a $500-million film tax credit that Hollywood desperately wants extended. Its backers have said they would try again in January if they could not win passage Friday.
Los Angeles Times staff writers Jack Dolan, Sam Farmer, Shane Goldmacher, Michael J. Mishak and Nicholas Riccardi contributed to this report.