State environmental laws facing reform

By: Art Garcia, Telegraph Correspondent
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It’s been 43 years since then-Gov. Ronald Reagan signed the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) into law and after four decades and many additions and changes, the state’s signature environmental legislation this year faces its first full makeover.

Gov. Jerry Brown, state Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg and Assembly Speaker John Perez are behind a CEQA overhaul and with Democratic super majorities in both houses of the state legislature, they’re likely to see success in this year’s legislative session.

Major business groups also favor a major CEQA revision, complaining the act is too often used to delay worthwhile projects, creating high business costs, permitting delays and lawsuits.

Organized labor, plaintiffs’ attorneys and environmentalists, on the other hand, are protective of CEQA the way it is or are willing to accept only minor changes.

Beth Gaines, the Republican Assemblywoman representing the 6th Assembly District, including El Dorado Hills, Folsom and Cameron Park, said while reform is currently “a work in progress, the good news is that both sides of the aisle agree CEQA reform is needed.

“We do need to make some reforms, everybody agrees on that. A boost to our economy and an increase in jobs would be greatly accelerated with simple revisions to CEQA,” she said.

“We’re a long way from knowing any specifics, but my door is open,” Gaines added. “I’m very excited and willing to hear any CEQA ideas from individual businesses or local government.”

Meanwhile, this month more than a dozen groups formed CEQA Works and announced they are joining forces to oppose a CEQA overhaul. It includes the state League of Conservation Voters, the Sierra Club California, the League of Women Voters of California and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Three former California governors — George Deukmejian, Pete Wilson and Gray Davis — have joined in calling for preserving CEQA’s goals but ending its abuses.

Gov. Brown hasn’t endorsed a CEQA do-over but has been quoted as saying he’s never met a CEQA exemption he didn’t like and that CEQA reform is “the Lord’s work.”

A late move last August to give CEQA a facelift faded when Steinberg decided the law, “for all of its strengths and its faults,” was too important to rewrite in the final days of the 2011-2012 legislature.

Steinberg said the CEQA agenda for this year’s session is to “update” the act. The objective, he said, is to make the CEQA process “more efficient, more timely and less expensive.”

He assured he won’t allow any changes that do harm to the state’s environment. But he also said he wants to address complaints “from the other side” that sometimes it’s how the law is used and the amount of time it takes to win approval “even for jobs that are clean and green.”