The legislative process exists for a reason, and the governor shouldn’t introduce exceptions at the eleventh hour

In mid-May, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced that he was submitting a package of bills to the Legislature and declaring an executive order establishing an “Infrastructure Strike Team,” both with the same goal: to “streamline” permitting and judicial review for infrastructure projects under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).

CEQA is a vital process that provides information about projects to decision-makers and the public so they can ensure communities receive benefits promised and avoid unintended impacts. Above all, CEQA is about transparency. It gives all Californians the opportunity to know what is planned in their communities and then weigh in to help reduce health and environmental impacts. It holds government agencies and developers accountable and ensures that they comply with air and water standards.

A few examples of the Legislature’s troubled relationship with CEQA from recent history:

In 2009, when billionaire developer Ed Roski wanted to get an exemption from CEQA to smooth the path to construction for a football stadium in the City of Industry, the California Legislature had his back, because jobs.

The exemption, legislators promised, would be a special case; a one-off, never to be repeated and in no way a precedent for future exemptions—until two years later, when the Legislature granted another one-time-only environmental exemption to Anschutz Entertainment Group for its proposed downtown LA football stadium.

And then, as LA Times columnist Michael Hitzik noted, “the Legislature promptly passed yet another environmental exemption, this time a gift so open-ended that no one has any idea how many big construction projects will be shaded beneath its capacious boughs. ... ‘You didn’t have to wait very long to see the domino effect’ of the AEG bill, Bruce Reznik, executive director of the Sacramento-based Planning and Conservation League, told me. ‘It happened in 24 hours.’”

Both bills were rammed through in the final hours of the legislative session, assuring them minimum review and debate.

It was unfortunate that Gov. Newsom summoned that history when he announced his plans to speed up big infrastructure projects by ramming a CEQA-reforming package of “budget trailer bills” through at the end of the legislative session.

“I love sports. I take a backseat to nobody on sports, but I also love roads; I love transit; I love bridges; I love clean energy projects,” the governor said. “It’s not just about stadiums, and we’ve proven we can get it done for stadiums, so why the hell can’t we translate that to all of these other projects?”

The Sierra Club and 70 other environmental groups wrote a letter in opposition to legislative leaders pointing out that the trailer bill package “will significantly change judicial review, environmental permitting, imperiled species protections, water law, and community engagement among other important laws and policies. This abuse of the budget process eliminates an open and transparent discussion of massive policy.”

We asked legislators to decline the governor’s invitation to move important policy measures as part of the budget process and instead move these proposals through the regular legislative process.

On May 25, a Senate budget committee halted the progress of the bill package, citing the inappropriateness of asking the Legislature to make a last-minute decision on a lot of major policy bills.

But, as CalMatters put it, that committee vote “doesn’t mean Newsom’s infrastructure proposal is dead. His bills could return to Senate or Assembly committees in budget negotiations over the next few weeks.”

Brandon Dawson, director of Sierra Club California, said of Newsom’s effort: “There’s no doubt that California needs more clean energy, clean transportation, and water resiliency projects to protect communities from the impacts of the climate crisis. However, that infrastructure can’t be built without the input of the communities it will exist in.”

In 2011, Michael Hiltzik asked how it was that, if CEQA procedures could benefit from streamlining, “why achieve the streamlining by steamrollering an unread bill through the Legislature minutes before adjournment?”

The Legislature’s deadline for approving the budget is June 15. Keep your eyes peeled.

Andrew Christie is the executive director of the Santa Lucia Chapter of the Sierra Club. Respond with a letter to the editor by emailing it to [email protected].

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