The good news is that rush-rush efforts to reform the state’s bedrock environmental law have stalled for this session. As the Times editorial board called for Wednesday, last-minute legislation to change the California Environmental Quality Act will be placed into “pre-print” so that the public can read it during the fall, and the bill will be formally introduced next session.
There’s plenty of room for making CEQA fairer and more business-friendly, the board noted, without undermining its protective nature that requires builders to forecast the effects their projects will have on the environment and take steps to reduce the damage. But CEQA is a complicated law, layered over with court findings on how it must be used. The late-session legislation would have given you and me and nearly everyone else almost no chance to read its provisions, digest them, debate them. There would have been no hearings, no legislative analysis. This is a bad way to pass any law, let alone one this important.
Things seemed to be marching along for the reform idea. A week or so ago, Assembly Speaker John Perez (D-Los Angeles) announced, seemingly out of the blue, that CEQA reform was one of the top priorities for hurried legislation to be passed before the end of next week. A coalition of business, labor and local government representatives who sought substantial changes in the law was holding press conferences, releasing the wording of the bill to be carried by Sen. Michael Rubio (D-East Bakersfield), offering their own analysis and interviews. Opponents were railing against what changes they had been able to pick up on a quick read. But no language had been formally introduced in the Legislature and Rubio’s office wasn’t saying much of anything until the news came this afternoon that the effort was being abandoned for this session.
There was a lot of talk by legislative leaders Thursday about how there should be a thoughtful, deliberative process for such a bill, though there was no explanation of why they hadn’t found this to be a concern just a couple of days ago. Also left unclear was just how this tremendous push for hasty legislation came about in the first place.
Conjecture has been that Perez -- who needed a Republican vote to pass his package of bills that would increase taxes on some out-of-state businesses selling in California and use the proceeds to provide scholarships for middle-class students -- concocted a deal with Assemblyman Brian Nestande (R-Palm Desert). Perez denies it. But what is known, as reported by the Sacramento Bee, is that Nestande voted for Perez’s legislation, promptly stepped down from his chairmanship and started talking about how, as a result of his cooperation, there would soon be CEQA reform. And suddenly Perez was saying there had to be CEQA reform, right now, this legislative session.
The Times editorial board found Perez’s scholarship plan flawed but said it was worth passing as fewer Californians could afford to send their kids to the state’s public colleges and universities. But more worthwhile than the state’s cornerstone of environmental protection? That’s another matter. Now the public will have a chance to learn more about the CEQA bill and discuss it at length before any changes are made to the law. What it’s less likely to get is a fuller explanation of how Perez developed a sudden passion for instant CEQA reform.