Labor, environmental groups rise to defend CEQA

4:22 PM, Mar 12, 2013   |    comments
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If Gov. Jerry Brown is going to convince legislators to make substantive changes to California's landmark environmental law, it will take a battle with interest groups that have almost always had his back.

Those groups -- labor, environmentalists, tribal governments -- are making it clear that they think the California Environmental Quality Act, or CEQA, works just as it is.

"An attack on CEQA is an attack on our workers, it's an attack on our families, it's an attack on our communities," said Art Pulaski, executive director of the California Labor Federation.  "We reject all efforts to weaken this important law."

Pulaski's comments came at a Tuesday news conference on the Capitol steps, and it was crystal clear that a newly formed coalition doesn't see much that needs changing in the 43 year old law that requires environmental review of development projects in communities across the state.

"We've just been hearing all of these horror stories from business folks," said Ann Nothoff of the Natural Resources Defense Council. "Now, we're just trying to get the facts out."

Those facts, in the eyes of the coalition, include an 80 page report from a Utah-based labor economist that concludes no economic drag from CEQA.

"CEQA," says the report commissioned by a state labor group, "may well have played a role in the long run robust pattern of California economic growth."

Supporters who rallied at the Capitol conceded the law may need some small "modernization" changes, like allowing documents to be filed electronically.  But that's a far cry from what backers of CEQA revamping have been demanding from state lawmakers now for years.

And count the governor among those who seem to want more.

"Look, I've never met a CEQA exemption that I don't like," said Brown last summer.

He renewed his call for changes in his January State of the State speech.  Legislation to change CEQA has been introduced by Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg; that bill is only a placeholder for future, more substantive discussions later in 2013.

Tops among the interests of business leaders has been some kind of limitation to CEQA lawsuits filed even after a project has cleared all of its environmental hurdles.

"What we want is certainty," says Kathy Fairbanks of the CEQA Working Group Coalition, "so that if a project meets state and federal and local guidelines, it can't sued after the fact and the rug pulled out from under the project."

Members of the labor-environmental coalition now ready for battle argue very few actual CEQA lawsuits have been filed through the years, though they admit those records don't include lawsuit threats made by some groups unhappy with local development projects.

The trick now for Democrats, especially Brown, is finding a way to have the proverbial cake and eat it, too -- answering CEQA critics with something substantive, while not provoking a political firestorm inside the ranks of liberal interest groups whose support will be needed come the 2014 election cycle.


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