A bill that would make changes to California's landmark environmental review law moved forward in the state Senate Wednesday, as Democrats rejected a GOP-backed proposal as "too broad and comprehensive a change."
Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg defended his Senate Bill 731, which passed the Senate Environmental Quality Committee Wednesday, as an attempt to cut down on project delays the business community has long blamed on the California Environmental Quality Act without undermining the environmental protections the 1970 law provides. He acknowledged that the current bill is a work in progress.
"I'm trying to find the middle path, not just to make a deal, because I'll walk away from it if it's just about that, but to substantively approve the statute, to modernize it and to make sure we are giving genuine streamlining incentives and priorities to the projects we want to see more of," Steinberg said.
The bill focused on changes supporters say could boost prospects for "infill projects," especially in urban areas, such as the planned arena in downtown Sacramento, though what qualifies as an infill project is expected to be the subject of continued debate. It also makes changes to the paperwork and legal filing process Steinberg says could speed up CEQA-related lawsuits.
Supporters of a CEQA overhaul suffered a setback earlier this year when Democratic Sen. Michael Rubio, a key ally who was appointed as chair of the Environmental Quality Committee, resigned unexpectedly to take a job with Chevron Corp. Gov. Jerry Brown said last month "the appetite for CEQA reform is much stronger outside the state Capitol than it is inside."
Brown spokesman Evan Westrup said the governor continues to support any effort to update the law, even if it doesn't go as far as what Rubio and others had originally proposed.
"His comments about timing were certainly in reference to broader CEQA reform," Westrup said.
Groups leading the call for a CEQA rewrite expressed tepid support for Steinberg's bill Wednesday.
Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Gary Toebben, vice chair of the CEQA Working Group advocating for bigger changes, said little about the merits of the actual proposal, instead voicing "support for the process (Steinberg) has established for developing meaningful CEQA modernization." A representative for the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, which is also a part of that coalition, told the committee she looks forward to considering a later version of the bill that "truly moves toward meaningful reform."
Legislation advocating a broader approach more strongly backed by business groups was rejected by the committee that approved Steinberg's bill Wednesday, with Democratic senators saying the proposal went too far.
In a prepared statement, the author of that bill, GOP Sen. Tom Berryhill, blasted Steinberg's bill as being "about keeping the Kings in Sacramento - more of an exemption to CEQA, than meaningful reform."
"The Legislature is quick to acknowledge CEQA is broken when a big stadium needs to get built but pretty quiet when a small business is trying to expand," the Twain Hart Republican said. "If you are a regular Joe anywhere else in California trying to expand your business you don't get much from this bill."
Steinberg says that while his bill would likely help the arena project, a case he made to the National Basketball Association as it considered approving a proposed sale of the Sacramento Kings to a Seattle group, the bill is intended to have applications across the state. He has called the timing a happy coincidence.
Any proposal that does more to change the law is expected to face intense opposition from environmental groups and labor unions. Those interests maintained their existing position that a complete rewrite of the law is unnecessary, but said they were open to working with Steinberg on a bill that, as the League of Conservation Voters' Rick Zbur said, "charts a measured course to update CEQA."
"There are elements within the pro tem's bill that stretch our comfort levels, but we are really interested in having a piece of legislation that addresses some things that need to be fixed and puts and end to this ongoing nonstop assault on CEQA," added Scott Wetch, a lobbyist for the California State Pipe Trades Council and several other unions related to construction trades.
PHOTO CREDIT: Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg speaks to reporters after his CEQA bill cleared a Senate committee Wednesday. Torey Van Oot/Sacramento Bee.