With a little more than a week remaining in the legislative session, suddenly the big buzz is about CEQA. The Legislature has long neglected to reform the California Environmental Quality Act, even though it needs amending. And now that it's too late for carefully rendered language or a full public vetting, Assembly Speaker John A. Perez (D-Los Angeles) is touting CEQA reform as one of his top priorities. Under the gut-and-amend process in the last days of the session, major change to one of California's most important laws could happen literally in the dark of night just before legislators race out of Sacramento.
A memo couched in legislative language has been circulating in the Capitol. The changes it calls for reportedly would severely undermine the law, rather than reforming it, by exempting from litigation development projects that meet city and county general plans. But many of those plans are weak or outdated, and fall short of modern environmental standards.
More problematic is that no one outside the Legislature appears to know the language or source of this document. No author is listed, but on Tuesday Sen. Michael Rubio (D-East Bakersfield) confirmed that he was gutting a bill about fisheries management and inserting language to amend CEQA, though its wording would be different from the memo. The new version of the bill will be introduced Wednesday or Thursday.
CEQA requires environmental impact reports to assess the effect of proposed projects on matters as big as regional air pollution and as local as neighborhood traffic patterns. Many a bad project has been slowed, stopped or greatly improved because of the law — but many a perfectly acceptable project has withered and died because of the time and cost involved in sometimes frivolous litigation. Those lawsuits can derail a proposal even when the real object isn't environmental protection. Businesses use CEQA to hinder competitors; interest groups litigate for years, even decades, not so much to prevail on a matter of principle as to wear out a proponent.
Reasonable fixes could include creating a time frame by which litigation would have to be introduced and resolved. The types of projects covered by the act also could be the subject of thoughtful reform. But no changes should be made to the state's cornerstone of environmental protection in the secrecy and haste of the end of session, without a chance for potential critics to read them carefully or for legislative analysts to parse their intended and unintended effects.
There was early conjecture that Perez had traded his willingness to vote for CEQA reform for a Republican assemblyman's support for Perez's college-scholarship bill. Perez denies that. If CEQA reform is so important to legislators — and it should be — it should be enacted thoughtfully, through the proper process and in the public light.