STATELINE, NEV.— The blue waters of Lake Tahoe framed the stunning backdrop as the politicians orated. There were some droning Nevadans and three always-interesting Californians: Sen. Dianne Feinstein, U.S. Rep. Tom McClintock and Gov. Jerry Brown.
This was a “save the lake” crowd, heavy on environmental concerns, attending the 16th Annual Lake Tahoe Summit inaugurated in 1997 by President Clinton.
The recent event was basically designed as a pep rally for continued slow growth and environmental regulation.
And you wouldn’t guess who drew the most enthusiastic response from these lake lovers: It was that right-wing, regulation-hating McClintock, whose sprawling district includes the California side of the lake.
“Today’s theme is private-public partnerships for environmental improvement, but there’s not going to be a private sector left unless we get serious about economic improvement,” the Republican warned, drawing loud applause from the mostly local crowd of roughly 200.
“Tourists don’t go where they’re not welcomed, or where facilities are left to decay because simple repairs can’t be made, or where prices are inflated to pay for exorbitant [permit] fees....”
“People are fleeing Lake Tahoe,” continued the former Southern California state legislator and one-time gubernatorial candidate. “And a lot of them are heading to the Nevada desert.
“With all due respect, no conceivable act of God could turn Lake Tahoe into a less-desirable place for people to live and work and raise a family than the Nevada desert. Only acts of government could do that. And they have.”
Again, loud applause and laughter.
The congressman lamented Tahoe’s “stagnating economy and a staggering unemployment rate that’s hovering around 16%" — roughly twice the national average and much higher than California’s overall rate, 10.7%, or Nevada’s, 12%.
For Democrats on the dais, McClintock must have been a skunk at the picnic. But for the picnickers, he seemed to be a welcome songbird — and the only pol interrupted by applause.
A little background: Lake Tahoe straddles the California-Nevada border, and its planning and development are controlled principally by a bi-state agency created decades ago by then-Govs. Ronald Reagan and Paul Laxalt, casting aside their antagonism toward centralized, coercive government.
“The environmentalists were giving us all these reports that on our watch, any day, Tahoe could turn gray,” Laxalt told me several years ago. “Rather grimly, we came to the conclusion that a super government agency was the only solution.”
But gradually the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency became overly bureaucratic, inflexible and snail-paced in its one-sided zeal to protect the lake’s environment, especially the famed water clarity.
Only recently, after the Nevada Legislature and Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval threatened to withdraw from the bi-state deal, did the regional agency begin to loosen up and speed up.
Sacramento should learn a lesson and follow suit for the entire state of California. There’s a cry for reform — not unlike McClintock’s — that has been reverberating throughout California’s private sector in a state infamous nationally for its anti-business climate.
“I’m tired of all the talk about stimulating jobs; it’s just empty rhetoric,” says Jim Earp, executive director of the California Alliance for Jobs, a coalition of construction unions and building contractors.
“You can’t talk about improving the economy of the state without doing something about CEQA"— the California Environmental Quality Act, also signed by Reagan — “and other regulations that are just stifling business. And I’m a Democrat.”
“The idea,” Earp adds, only half jokingly, “that McClintock has to be the messenger for this just drives me nuts.”
I interviewed Earp last week on the day that state Senate leader Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) shelved the latest attempt to make sweeping changes in CEQA, a quicksand pit for many frustrated developers and other entrepreneurs.
Too often, the landmark environmental protection act isn’t used by environmentalists at all. It’s the tool of business rivals trying to block competition or labor groups attempting to force unionization. They file — or threaten to file — drawn-out CEQA suits that bully project sponsors into withdrawal or submission.
“Folks are using a great environmental law in a greatly abusive way,” asserts Carl Guardino, head of the Silicon Valley Leadership Group.
The shelved legislation would have streamlined environmental review and limited lawsuits. The idea was to eliminate time-consuming, costly duplication when projects already conform to existing land-use plans and meet CEQA mandates.
But environmentalists and some unions complained that the proposal would gut CEQA. And Steinberg concluded the issue was too complicated and controversial to tackle in the final days of a legislative session that must adjourn by midnight Friday.
“This law,” Steinberg proclaimed, “is far too important to rewrite in the last days of the session.”
Fair enough. But that’s no excuse. The Legislature has had all year to do the rewriting.
Next year, the senator promised.
Brown last week called modernizing CEQA “the Lord’s work.” But, in truth, he wasn’t eager to push any legislation right now that might distract from his November tax initiative or irritate some groups he needs to support it.
At Tahoe, the governor drew laughs with self-deprecating humor.
“One of the pleasures of being in office so long, you can see the results of your earlier work,” he said, grinning. “Sometimes it doesn’t work the way you thought. So now I get the opportunity to correct the problems that I created…
“I am devoting a great deal of my latter years to cleaning up some of the messes that were created in my younger years.”
Brown and a lot of politicians — including Reagan —helped create the CEQA mess. The governor should lead the Legislature in cleaning it up.
Take a cue from environmentally sensitive Tahoe. Maybe even listen to McClintock.