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September 13, 2013
Editorial: Lawmakers punted on vital coastal bill

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(Sept. 13 -- By the Editorial Board)

Why did Assemblyman Marc Levine take a walk on coastal protection? Levine represents Marin County, perhaps the most environmentally conscious political jurisdiction on the planet. Nonetheless, he abstained this week on a bill that would have given the coastal commission independent authority to levy fines on people who violate environmental laws that damage the coast.

Authored by San Diego Assemblywoman Toni Atkins, Assembly Bill 976 would give the coastal commission the same kind of authority to levy fines that 20 other state agencies already have. Levine voted for a version of the bill when the Assembly approved it in late May but took a pass when it returned for concurrence on Senate amendments in the last week of session. Levine says he thought the Senate amendments gave violators more of an incentive to litigate than to settle. But the bill he voted for initially was actually stronger than the one he walked away from.

Eight other former supporters abstained as well, including at least two other coastal representatives: Assemblyman Luis Alejo, whose district includes parts of the Monterey and Santa Cruz coast, and Assemblyman Richard Gordon, who represents the San Mateo Coast.

Because it has no independent authority to impose fines, when violations occur now, the California Coastal Commission is required to refer cases to the Attorney General's Office, which then has to pursue the matter in court, a cumbersome and expensive process. That process, coupled with deep cuts to the commission's budget in recent years, has devastated enforcement efforts. The commission has a backlog of nearly 2,000 cases.

Some of the state's most powerful interests exerted strong pressure to defeat AB 976 and similar measures that have failed over the last three years. Farmers, cattlemen, developers, oil companies, railroads, Realtors and a lot of very rich people who own coastal properties lined up against the bill. They showed up in force in members' offices this week. So a bill that had zipped out of the Assembly initially, a bill that the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst's Office has said consistently is sorely needed if the Coastal Commission is to fulfill its mission and protect 840 miles of California coastline, died in the last week of session.

The California coast is a valuable state asset and beloved treasure that needs protection. The Coastal Commission's current enforcement mechanism isn't working. AB 976 offered a reasonable fix to a long-standing problem. Legislators, particularly those like Assemblyman Levine who represent coastal communities, should have done more to get it to the governor's desk.

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