Progressives Need to Lead CEQA Reform Effort
Today Governor Jerry Brown confirmed what many of us had already suspected, if not assumed — CEQA reform is unlikely in the current legislative session:
The California Environmental Quality Act, Brown told reporters here, “is supported by some key groups within the Democratic Party, and I think it would be difficult for the Legislature to move that process forward.”
Brown said he remains committed relaxing provisions of the law but that he has a large agenda, including the state budget, water infrastructure and high-speed rail. He said “the appetite for CEQA reform is much stronger outside the state Capitol than it is inside.”
Brown said, “This is not something you get done in a year, but I believe before I depart this stage we will see reform in CEQA.”
My sense is that CEQA reform became much less likely when environmentalists and labor unions formed an alliance to oppose changes being proposed by business groups. Their work in recent months to frame the issue as one of defending the state’s environmental protection law against corporate efforts to undermine it and carve out loopholes was clearly effective.
It’s not hard to see why. Democrats have a supermajority in Sacramento. If you want to convince those Democrats to support your legislation, you need to have the key constituencies of the party on your side. The opposite happened this year with CEQA – key Democratic constituencies opposed the business-led reform effort.
Last weekend the California Democratic Party approved a resolution supporting CEQA reform with the following caveat:
THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED that the California Democratic Party stands with the labor and environmental community in affirming its support and commitment to CEQA’s original intent to ensure public participation and transparency in the planning process in order to protect California’s environment and calls on the state legislature and governor to oppose any efforts to weaken this law or reduce public participation.
As Brian Leubitz, a CDP regional director and veteran of the party’s resolutions committee, put it on Calitics today, this doesn’t mean “no reform” but rather that environmentalists have very strict conditions on which they would support changes to the law.
The question then is how to move forward. It’s clear that having business drive the process won’t work, at least not without some changes. I’ve heard a lot of criticisms that the proposed legislation was drafted without input from environmental advocates and labor unions. Many of them concluded that the draft legislation created loopholes and shifted the balance away from the environment.
Business still has a financial incentive to pursue reforms, as do unions whose members needs jobs. Environmentalists have the incentive of wanting to do something meaningful about the climate crisis without letting NIMBYs hold up important carbon reducing projects like solar panels and bullet trains by hijacking CEQA. There should be a path forward here for everyone.
My own humble suggestion, offered as someone who has merely been an observer throughout this process, is that the business advocates who support CEQA reforms should sit down with labor leaders and environmental groups – at least those that have shown an interest in some kind of reform. Some of those meetings should be private, especially at the outset, and then have some public conversations and conferences to help find the points of agreement. Find progressive leaders and groups who are willing to take the lead to make this happen.
Meanwhile business groups should continue making the case for some sort of reform, as they have been in news outlets across the state in recent weeks. Keep up the drumbeat and make it clear that the status quo is not acceptable and that we can do a better job protecting the environment and reducing carbon emissions. California’s labor and environmental leaders ought to do the same, framed in ways that meet their own values and needs.