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PD Editorial: Take time to reform CEQA the right way

  • Senate President Darrell Steinberg, seen here listening to Sen. Bob Dutton, said more time is need to consider reforms to the state's primary environmental quality law. (RICH PEDRONCELLI / Associated Press)

Jerry Brown, our always loquacious governor, proclaimed recently that reforming CEQA “is the lord's work.”

CEQA is the California Environmental Quality Act, the state's primary environmental protection law. It's complicated, it's contentious, it's frequently abused, and, as Brown's quip implies, it's ripe for revision.

But “the lord's work” — well, the Legislature's anyway — ought to be conducted in public.

Perhaps that will happen, at least in the case of CEQA, following state Senate President Darrell Steinberg's decision to table an attempt to rewrite the law in the closing hours of a two-year legislative session that ends today.

“This law, for all of its strengths and its faults, is far too important to rewrite in the last days of the session,” Steinberg told reporters.

For the uninitiated, CEQA is the law that requires public agencies and private developers to analyze the environmental consequences of subdivisions, buildings, highways and other projects. They must consider alternatives and, if possible, mitigate any impacts.

Since it was passed in 1970, CEQA has halted plenty of bad projects. It's also been used to block, or simply delay, projects that threatened no serious damage. Four decades of court rulings have added to the complexity of CEQA compliance.

Any law of this scope should be reviewed and, if necessary, updated on a regular basis. In the case of CEQA, that's overdue.

Unfortunately, state legislators reflexively tried to treat this as another routine exercise in political log-rolling.

It only surfaced when a GOP legislator unexpectedly voted for an unrelated measure — a tax increase to fund college scholarships. Assemblyman Brian Nestande, whose vote cost him a leadership position, said he supported the tax bill because Speaker John Pérez promised that a CEQA reform measure would follow.

Pérez denied any deal but said he favored regulatory reform. Then, with eight days left in the legislative session, and months after the deadline to introduce new legislation, a CEQA bill was created using the gut-and-amend process that sidetracks the regular committee system. The deadline for committee action also had passed, leaving little opportunity for public input or analysis of the proposed changes.

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