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A business-labor-government coalition's proposed overhaul of the landmark California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) has been amended into a Senate bill, the group announced late Wednesday.

The amendment touches off what could be the fiercest battle of the 2012 legislative session's final days because environmental groups have vowed to resist any major changes in the 42-year-old law, one of the oldest and most comprehensive such statutes in the nation.

Gov. Jerry Brown strongly supports CEQA reform, calling it "the Lord's work" earlier Wednesday during a campaign stop for his tax increase measure. But he has not endorsed the CEQA Working Group's version of reform. Democratic legislators appear to be deeply divided on changing CEQA while Republicans have been demanding it for years, echoing complaints from business that it makes construction of much-needed public and private projects too difficult and discourages investment..

The CEQA Working Group's four-point proposal, aimed at reducing frivolous litigation and duplication of government oversight of projects, has been placed in Senate Bill 317, a measure by Sen. Michael Rubio, D-Shafter, that has been languishing in the Assembly's inactive floor file after clearning the Senate and Assembly committees.

The measure had dealt with fisheries management on the Kings River, but its contents are being stripped out and the new CEQA bill inserted, a process commonly used late in a legislative session called "gut-and-amend."

The new bill's provisions are exactly what the group said it wanted Monday when it made its public announcement. Rather than change CEQA itself, it would enact a new law, the Sustainable Environmental Protection Act, that changes how it's to be enforced, including integrating its provisions with other planning and protection laws, and placing restrictions on CEQA lawsuits that don't specifically address environmental matters.

Given the decades-long conflict over CEQA's provisions and effects, however, winning legislative approval in a session that's due to end Aug. 31 will be difficult. A majority of the Assembly's Democrats have already signed a letter pledging opposition to changing CEQA.


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