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In Case You Missed It: LA Times Columnist George Skelton says CEQA reform is needed: “stop using environmental laws to kill jobs”, 9/8/15

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September 8  |  News, News Articles, Press Releases  |   user

Yesterday, Los Angeles Times political columnist George Skelton called out blatant abuse of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), arguing that CEQA lawsuits are leading to middle class job loss and attacks on “green” projects like solar and renewable energy projects. Reforms are needed, he suggests, including transparency to identify those bankrolling CEQA lawsuits.

Key excerpts from Skelton’s column:

  • “…CEQA also has been shamefully abused by union blackmailers — “greenmailers” — who threaten to derail a project by filing an environmental lawsuit unless the developer caves in to their labor demands.”
  • “Unions aren’t the only abusers. Business rivals try to drive off potential competitors. And NIMBYs — “not in my backyard” — fight local projects, even environmentally friendly ones such as transit stations.”
  • “The result is costly, years-long delays, if not outright project scuttling, that discourages future investments in the state.”
  • “The fact that CEQA is flawed and abused is no secret in the state Capitol.”
  • “Another much-needed reform is transparency. The true plaintiffs — the CEQA lawsuit bankrollers — don’t have to be identified.”
  • “[The Holland & Knight] study found that 45% of plaintiffs remain basically anonymous, using fronts with nice environmental-sounding names and hiring “bounty” and “shakedown” lawyers. Digging into the paperwork, she estimates that most of the anonymous plaintiffs are NIMBYs, but roughly one-third are unions.”
  • “Her report includes this chilling statement: ‘CEQA, which in its heyday was used to challenge nuclear plants, coal-fired plants and plants burning hazardous waste or garbage, is now used most frequently to challenge solar and wind renewable energy projects — precisely the ‘green’ projects that are most critical to meeting California’s climate change reduction mandates.’”

Read the press release from the CEQA Working Group which hits the highlights from the Holland & Knight CEQA study examining 600 CEQA lawsuits. 

San Diego Union Tribune, Column, Steven Greenhut, “Climate bill may chill new infrastructure”, 9/4/15

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September 4  |  News, News Articles  |   user

Business and labor fear new greenhouse-gas targets put them in crosshairs

SACRAMENTO — Gov. Jerry Brown and the Legislature are wrangling over a new transportation plan to help the state meet its growing population, with the differences centering on whether to raise taxes — or focus on reforming the existing transportation bureaucracy — to assure projects aren’t delayed. That’s the hot Capitol debate these days.

But at the same time this transportation session does its work, legislators are moving ahead major climate-change bills that could slow major infrastructure projects in the future, although newly introduced amendments could lessen the blow.

The most climate-change attention has gone to SB 350, which would mandate a 50-percent reduction in petroleum use, a 50-percent increase in energy efficiency in buildings and 50-percent use of renewable energy by utilities — all by 2030. But another bill is causing more consternation to business and trade unions.

SB 32, authored by Sen. Fran Pavley, D-Agoura Hills, advances the state’s original anti-global-warming law signed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2006 (AB 32). “AB 32 requires California to reduce its (greenhouse gas) emissions to 1990 levels by 2020 — a reduction of approximately 15 percent below emissions expected under a ‘business as usual’ scenario,” according to the California Air Resources Board, which gained power to impose reductions under the original law and would gain more under the new proposals.

Similarly named SB 32 steps up the goals, by mandating these greenhouse-gas emissions are 40 percent below the 1990 level by 2030 and 80 percent below that level by 2050. Critics say these mandated reductions have diminishing returns — e.g., it’s easier for a dieter to lose the first few pounds, but tougher to lose additional pounds as the weight decreases.

But the biggest problem may involve the impact on transportation and home-building, given the Legislature has yet to reform its infamous California Environmental Quality Act. The 40-year-old CEQA is the subject of endless Capitol debates given that it makes it easy for opponents of virtually any construction project to file time-consuming litigation.

It’s often abused, as unions threaten lawsuits unless they get Project Labor Agreements, businesses file lawsuits to hobble the competition, and local activists file lawsuits against any projects they don’t like. Proof of CEQA’s problem: Even environmentally friendly politicians seek CEQA exemptions for their pet projects, such as the arena being built for the Sacramento Kings basketball team. Legislators from both parties complain about it.

The CEQA Working Group — business, labor and local government groups — sent a letter late last month to Pavley opposing SB 32 “for the sole reason that it would vastly expand opportunities for litigation under CEQA and it would create an impossible threshold to meet under CEQA.” Their concern is critics of any project proposed now — even green-friendly ones for, say, infill housing — would have to immediately “prove themselves to meet the year 2050 80 percent reduction goal today.”

That sounds like a scare tactic, until one looks at their main evidence: The San Diego Association of Governments regional plan “has been in CEQA litigation for years over a complaint (upheld by a lower court) that the plan does not meet the (greenhouse-gas) reduction requirements of a 2005 executive order … . Clearly, a more ambitious statute like SB 32 would create (an) even greater legal bar to meet under CEQA.”

In this case, environmental groups are using CEQA and long-term global-warming goals to force the San Diego agency to reduce freeway construction and focus instead on mass transit. More aggressive targets will give litigants better ammunition.

In response, Pavley’s office on Friday announced amendments intended to do the following: The California Air Resource Board “is required to work with builders, local governments, others to ensure that land use and permitting decisions on new construction are not subject to 2050 target on Day 1.”

Critics of the bill fear the amendments won’t provide enough specific direction and they will still end up in court. It would be ironic to have state leaders asking Californians to pay more to help reduce congestion as they simultaneously make it tougher for congestion-busting projects to get built.

Greenhut is the San Diego Union-Tribune’s California columnist.

Read the Full Article Here.

In Case You Missed It: Bay Area Council Op-Ed in The San Francisco Chronicle

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July 24  |  News, News Articles  |   user

California Can’t Reach Greenhouse-Gas Targets Without CEQA Reform

By Jim Wunderman, President and CEO of the Bay Area Council.

Meeting the new greenhouse-gas reduction targets set in Gov. Jerry Brown’s April executive order and Sen. Fran Pavley’s SB32 will require significant changes in the way California plans, lives and operates. We will need to focus on higher-density infill housing and commercial development closer to transit. We will need to place more emphasis on congestion-reduction projects, public transit, bike lanes and walkable neighborhoods. We will also need to move more rapidly to expand our sources of clean energy, such as wind and solar.

Ironically, one of the biggest obstacles to achieving the aggressive new targets likely will be California’s oldest environmental law, the California Environmental Quality Act.

A groundbreaking report conducted by Holland & Knight, a law firm with extensive CEQA experience, analyzed 15 years of published opinions in CEQA litigation at the Court of Appeal or the California Supreme Court from 1997-2012. The report found that 62 percent of cases litigated under CEQA involved urban infill development. The analysis demonstrates how the environmental protection law actually is frustrating our greenhouse gas reduction goals by hindering infill development, more public transit and cleaner power.

Remarkably, these greenhouse-gas reducing projects are the very type of projects that anonymously funded opposition groups most frequently attempt to stop through time-consuming and expensive litigation. CEQA is their tool of choice, but environmental protection is not often their aim.

Cases in point:

  • A single individual used a CEQA lawsuit to delay San Francisco’s plan to expand its network of bicycle lanes and encourage more bicycle commuting. The lawsuit claimed the city had not sufficiently studied the negative environmental impacts of the project. Five years, several million taxpayer dollars and 2,200 pages of environmental review later, the plan finally was approved.
  • A neighborhood group used a CEQA lawsuit to further its antidevelopment agenda to block Park Merced, an affordable infill housing community in San Francisco set to become America’s first net-zero carbon community, with upgraded public transit access and on-site neighborhood-serving retail and services. The suit held up the project for three years, costing millions of dollars.

Another report by the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office also points the finger of blame for California’s high housing costs squarely at CEQA. The report found that cities in California take on average 2.5 years to complete the various CEQA analyses required to permit new infill housing, and that’s before anyone files a lawsuit that can add many more years to the process.

The unfortunate reality is — for all the good it has done to improve the California environment and planning process — CEQA is being used to impede the type of responsible growth California needs in order to meet the new greenhouse-gas targets.

The governor’s ambitious executive order seeks to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions to 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030, setting an interim target for the 2050 goal of 80 percent reduction set by Brown’s predecessor. Pavley’s bill codifies the new target. The Bay Area Council supported AB 32 in 2006 and supports SB 32 if amended to include CEQA reforms among other changes.

CEQA was written in the 1960s before we knew what climate change was. It is designed to analyze individual projects, not address a global threat. It’s time to modernize CEQA so that it is used to protect the environment, not to protect hidden agendas that have nothing to do with environmental protection.

Jim Wunderman is president and CEO of the Bay Area Council, a regional business association.

Read the Full Article Here

In Case You Missed It: So Cal Assn of Governments in LA Times: “CEQA should be for everyone”

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June 19  |  News, News Articles, Press Releases  |   user

Lack of Comprehensive CEQA Reforms Results in another Round of Legislative Exemptions for Special Projects

A story in today’s Los Angeles Times,Development deals tied to state budget sidestep ‘green’ rules,” highlights what unfortunately has become an annual tradition in Sacramento: favored projects getting special legislation to exempt them from certain CEQA rules.

Hasan Ikhrata, executive director, Southern California Association of Governments (and CEQA Working Group member) put it best: “It’s not fair, simply because if you have resources and money, you can get things done. You can get people to lobby for you…. CEQA should be for everyone.”

The CEQA Working Group has long maintained that the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), California’s premiere environmental law, needs updating. Too often the law is abused for non-environmental reasons by NIMBY’s and others, and their abuses jeopardize much-needed projects.  The law should apply equally to all projects, even smaller projects like infill, low-income housing, senior housing and transit projects, not just those who have backers with enough money to hire lobbyists. 

It’s time for the legislature to modernize CEQA and even the playing field instead of giving exemptions to special projects.

Read the full article, Development deals tied to state budget sidestep ‘green’ rules

Below are key excerpts,

  • “After returning to the governor’s office, [Jerry Brown] vowed to ease California’s landmark environmental restrictions, saying it would be ‘the Lord’s work.’”
  • “… Brown and Democratic lawmakers have instead struck deals giving special consideration to certain projects rather than confront the political difficulties of overhauling the law.”
  • “‘The administration continues to support comprehensive CEQA reform, but in the meantime we are not going to pass up opportunities to achieve targeted reforms, like getting key water projects done in the face of California’s drought crisis,’ Westrup said in a statement Thursday.”
  • “‘Picking and choosing favorite projects is not good policy,’ said Assemblyman James Gallagher (R-Nicolaus)”

About the CEQA Working Group: The CEQA Working Group is a broad coalition of local government, affordable housing, business, agriculture, education and other organizations advocating for moderate reforms to CEQA that will preserve its original intent – environmental protection and public disclosure – while eliminating some of the misuses of CEQA that hurt job creation, community renewal and our environment. www.ceqaworkinggroup.com

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Santa Rosa Press Democrat Opinion Editorial, Pete Parkinson & John Lowry: Close to Home: Facing our pressing housing needs 4/29/15

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April 30  |  News, News Articles  |   user

The two of us have spent several decades working on housing issues from different perspectives — one as a local government planning director and the other as a nonprofit housing builder. Despite our different perspectives, common themes have emerged, and we see several specific actions that can be taken to improve housing affordability.

Cities and counties can help “front-load” the planning and permitting process by adopting neighborhood-level development plans in areas suitable for increased housing density and infill development. Known as specific plans, these long-range planning tools are more than a zoning map. A good specific plan spells out design requirements for buildings, amenities and infrastructure, shows how improvements will be financed and includes an upfront environmental clearance under the California Environmental Quality Act. This planning increases predictability for future housing providers and reduces the time and cost of the permitting process. Santa Rosa’s specific plan efforts are a good example. The state Legislature and governor can help jump-start these planning efforts by increasing funding for long range planning.

The state Legislature can provide immediate help by improving California’s environmental review process. A recent study showed that nearly 60 percent of CEQA lawsuits were filed against infill development projects. The costs of CEQA litigation — in time and money — can be devastating for an affordable housing project. We believe the CEQA process can be streamlined without compromising environmental quality. The existing CEQA exemptions for infill housing projects can be expanded. Reforms also are needed to reduce the ability of housing opponents to raise last-minute CEQA issues as a delay tactic.

A candid conversation about development impact fees is overdue. In the nearly 40 years since Proposition 13, impact fees have become an important funding source for public infrastructure. They are also the most regressive revenue source in our history. In many places, all units, from mansions to studio apartments, pay almost the same fees. While reducing fees on all housing, like Santa Rosa has done recently with its sewer and water fees, would be beneficial for housing supply, the fee burden is greatest for smaller units. We should move to a fee based on living area for higher density, low-income affordable housing.

We have seen a dramatic increase in regulatory complexity and the cost of compliance. New regulations affecting land development and building construction are added every year. These regulations originate from a worthwhile purpose, whether it’s health and safety, energy conservation, environmental protection or accessibility and equity. But compliance comes at a cost that is seldom, if ever, acknowledged at the state level. We believe that the cost of compliance should be considered for all new regulations, including the relationship between benefits and costs.While public funding, loan guarantees and tax breaks have a long history in providing low income housing and home ownership opportunities, we are in a time where even greater public commitment is needed.

There is resistance to this policy direction, and the question of why government needs to commit more public money to housing is a legitimate one. One answer is that government has restricted housing supply to accomplish other public policy goals and has used new housing to fund everything from public infrastructure to saving endangered species and reducing global warming; and the bill has come due. Another answer is that while housing supply must be increased, Sonoma County, as with most coastal areas, will never build its way out of the affordability crisis. Incomes of lower income people have not kept up with actual building costs. If wage stagnation is a long-term trend, the most effective way to prevent it from reducing more people to poverty, will be to make sure that we have decent housing for all.

Pete Parkinson is former director of Sonoma County’s Permit and Resource Management Department. John Lowry is former executive director of Santa Rosa-based Burbank Housing Corp.

Full Opinion Editorial

LA Daily News Opinion Editorial, LA EDC and SCAG: Jobs are lost as CEQA goes off the rails: Guest commentary 10/28/14

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October 28  |  News, News Articles  |   user

The California Environmental Quality Act was established to protect the environment and ensure that development does the same. So how is it that a project to build hundreds of “green” public transit rail cars in Palmdale was killed by a CEQA lawsuit that has nothing to do with the environment?

The time is long past due to reform CEQA to preserve the law’s original intent, while stamping out these types of abuses that eliminate jobs our region desperately needs.

Kinkisharyo International LLC is set to build hundreds of environmentally friendly rail cars for the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority, but it recently pulled the plug on the $50 million, 400,000-square-foot permanent manufacturing facility planned for the city of Palmdale that would have employed more than 250 manufacturing workers in this economically depressed area.

According to news reports, groups trying to force the rail car manufacturer to unionize its workforce filed a CEQA lawsuit in an attempt to coerce the company to give in to its demands. Fearing the uncertainty and delays from the CEQA litigation, Kinkisharyo decided to look to another state for its manufacturing facility.

Unions serve an important purpose and provide great value to workers, but we think everyone can agree that this is a wholly inappropriate use of CEQA, a law adopted to protect environmental resources and public health.

This flagrant abuse of CEQA couldn’t come at a worse time. According to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, the city of Palmdale has an unemployment rate of 9.7 percent (as of September). In neighboring cities such as Lancaster, unemployment is 11.1 percent — far greater than the statewide average of 7.3 percent.

The region, too, is suffering worse than it has in years. According to a recent Southern California Association of Governments study, the share of residents in the six-county SCAG region living below the federal poverty level increased from 13 percent in 1990 to 18 percent in 2012. Today, the region has 3.2 million residents in poverty, including one in four children. We must do something to address this crisis.

Instead, abuses of CEQA are taking us backward.

The rail car project would have brought hundreds of middle-class jobs to the region, all while promoting environmentally friendly public transit that will help get people get out of their cars and meet California’s emission-reduction goals. SCAG’s most recent Regional Transportation Plan/Sustainable Communities Strategy places heavy emphasis on public transit, including rail, and as we begin work on our updated RTP/SCS, we’re keenly aware of the value of projects that support that goal.

Sadly, what we’ve seen in Palmdale is all too common — CEQA used as a blunt tool to strong-arm economic concessions out of a developer or to stop projects for non-environmental reasons. Throughout the state, CEQA lawsuits have gridlocked affordable housing, schools, renewable energy projects, hospitals and many other local environmentally desirable projects we need.

Lawmakers must take a serious look at CEQA to preserve the law’s original intent while stopping clear abuses of the law.

Achieving these goals will not be easy, but with participation from diverse stakeholders and commitment from Gov. Brown and legislators on both sides of the aisle, meaningful CEQA reform can and should be accomplished this year.

We urge legislators to make this a top priority for 2015.

William Allen is president and CEO of the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corporation. Hasan Ikhrata is executive director of the Southern California Association of Governments.

Full Opinion Editorial

Associated Press, Calif. groups worry over environmental law reform, 7/29/13

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July 30  |  News, News Articles  |   afrew

By LAURA OLSON Associated Press

SACRAMENTO, Calif.—A coalition of business, housing and local government leaders is warning California legislative leaders that a plan to rewrite the state’s landmark environmental law could lead to more lawsuits and make it harder to approve responsible projects—the opposite of what lawmakers hope to achieve with the overhaul.

The group outlined its concerns to Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, in a letter obtained by The Associated Press. The group includes powerful organizations such as the California Chamber of Commerce, the Southern California Association of Governments, and the California Association of Realtors.

The coalition is among many environmental, business and labor groups that have been privately working with the Democratic Senate leader to reform the four-decade-old California Environmental Quality Act. Critics say the law, which was intended to protect the state’s air and water, has been abused to block projects and gain costly concessions from developers.

Steinberg’s legislation, SB731, aims to cut the number of lawsuits and the resulting delays in construction that can drag on for years when opponents object to a project.

It would create statewide standards for noise and traffic issues involving urban development projects, allowing projects that meet those standards to be protected from lawsuits based on those issues. A project’s aesthetics also could not be used as grounds for suing under the environmental law.

The bill also seeks to speed up administrative procedures stemming from lawsuits and directs the attorney general to track court filings related to the environmental statute.

In the letter sent to Steinberg on Thursday, the CEQA Working Group wrote that the measure as drafted would create new requirements that will lead to meritless lawsuits against projects that otherwise comply with stringent state and local environmental laws.

“Unfortunately, as drafted, SB731 would not advance true CEQA reform and, in fact, could make approval of worthy and responsible projects even more difficult,” the leaders of several dozen groups wrote.

Mark Hedlund, a spokesman for Steinberg, said Monday that he could not immediately comment on the concerns outlined in the letter. He said the Senate leader is continuing to work with interest groups to address concerns and craft a final version of the bill.

“The pro tem is still optimistic that we’ll be able get this done this year,” he said.

Gov. Jerry Brown, a Democrat, has supported changing the environmental law, though he has expressed doubts about whether the reforms could be completed this year. Many environmental groups and labor unions strongly support the existing law and argue that the tough rules are necessary to safeguard the state’s natural resources.

Gary Toebben, president and CEO of the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce, said he appreciated Steinberg’s efforts to find consensus but insisted the current version of the legislation was not acceptable.

The proposal “does not make the improvements that we were looking for and in some cases makes CEQA even more likely to be abused,” said Toebben, who serves as co-chairman of the CEQA Working Group.

Among the group’s concerns are provisions to create statewide standards for noise levels and handling parking issues. The group says it is impractical to address those issues on a statewide basis and could discourage development.

It also is concerned an optional procedure intended to speed up the legal process would actually encourage lawsuits by putting the significant cost of preparing the case record on agencies or developers, giving potential plaintiffs little to lose in filing suit.

Other sections of the proposed overhaul provide little or no benefits over current rules, according to the coalition.

The group says it would like further changes that would prevent lawsuits and delays for renewable energy projects and those that will reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Steinberg has said he also aims to streamline approval for such projects.

The letter also calls for disclosure of any parties that help pay for a lawsuit filed under the environmental quality law.

Steinberg’s legislation passed the Senate in May. It is before the Assembly Local Government Committee, where it could be taken up when lawmakers return to session next month.

Read the full article here

 

LA Daily News Opinion Editorial, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and Mayor Chuck Reed: Fix the California Environmental Quality Act Now, 4/26/13

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April 26  |  News, News Articles  |   afrew

As mayors of two of California’s largest cities, we’ve joined with other large city mayors including San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee, Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson, and Santa Ana Mayor Miguel Pulido, to call for a modernization of one of California’s oldest and most important environmental laws, the California Environmental Quality Act, or CEQA.

As mayors, we are responsible for ensuring the economic vitality of our communities, while also preserving our natural treasures. We believe sensible changes to CEQA can preserve the law’s original intent — environmental protection and full public disclosure and participation — while stamping out abuses to CEQA which aim to slow or stop worthy projects from proceeding.

For more than 40 years, CEQA has served as an important tool to ensure local governments have the information and tools needed to evaluate proposed developments, to protect our local communities, and to allow for citizen involvement in local land-use decisions. CEQA also ensures that the environmental impacts of new projects are mitigated.

However, today CEQA is too-often used by those who simply seek to disrupt or complicate projects, oftentimes for reasons that have nothing to do with protecting the environment. These lawsuits and the threat of lawsuits are sometimes used to stop exactly the type of growth that we as local officials are trying to promote — infill development, expansion and improvement of public transit and bicycle facilities, affordable housing, schools, hospitals, and all manner of public works. In fact, according to a review of CEQA cases from 1997 to 2012 that wound up at the appellate or California Supreme Court, 59 percent were filed against infill projects and 36 percent were filed against public works projects like schools, universities or roads.

AB32 and SB375 specifically require that cities and counties take steps to encourage new development near transit and to discourage sprawl. Further, infill projects in these locations are often built on sites that were previously developed, thereby avoiding many environmental impacts created by development on greenfield sites. Yet, CEQA does not address how we’ve come to view infill as more environmentally friendly than suburban sprawl. Nor does it address the ability to challenge infill projects that are considered categorically exempt from environmental review with relatively little evidence as to why they do not qualify for an exemption. CEQA challenges also unnecessarily drive up costs for taxpayers — by forcing public resources to be spent defending against lawsuits and by delaying public works projects.

It’s time to update CEQA so that it fulfills its original intent rather than be used as a means of delay or obfuscation. There is also great potential when undertaking this modernization to create a statute that incentivizes local governments to do the right thing – especially when it comes to in-fill development and transportation infrastructure projects in an urban setting.

We are encouraged by the dialogue in Sacramento, including commitments from the governor, Senate President Darrell Steinberg, and other legislative leaders on both sides of the aisle.

As legislators debate CEQA reform, they should recognize the important role that local governments and local elected officials play in shaping the local economy. Local officials need to be given the tools to encourage the right type of growth, while reducing barriers that cause unpredictability and jeopardize taxpayer dollars.


Antonio Villaraigosa is the mayor of Los Angeles. Chuck Reed is the mayor of San Jose.

 

 

Read full oped here.

 

 

San Francisco Chronicle, Column, John Diaz, Editorial Page Editor: Those do-nothing pledges, 4/21/13

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April 22  |  News, News Articles  |   afrew

Here’s what’s really wrong with American politics these days: those pledges.

Both major parties are guilty of having a significant portion of elected officials who have committed to do nothing about a big issue facing our society.

So many of us, including President Obama, were appalled that a proposal supported by 90 percent of Americans – extending background checks to all commercial gun sales, to keep deadly firearms away from felons and people with serious mental illnesses – could fail to pass the U.S. Senate, even after the slaughter of 20 schoolchildren in Newtown, Conn.

The cause is obvious. Too many Republicans, and a handful of rural-state Democrats, have pledged their fidelity to the gun lobby and its insistence on 100 percent loyalty. As the saying in Chicago goes: “What do you call someone who is 99 percent loyal? Disloyal.”

Certain Democrats tend to turn smug when they talk about their GOP counterparts who kowtow to the National Rifle Association or take the no-tax pledge ordered by their ideological guru Grover Norquist – “how dare they abdicate their responsibility to their constituents and their state,” is a refrain I hear again and again – but Democrats have masters of their own.

Let’s start with teachers unions.

At the state Democratic convention last weekend, delegates unanimously passed a resolution condemning efforts to bring about reforms such as expanding parental choice, linking student performance to teacher evaluations or changing the way teachers are hired or fired.

“I’ll tell you right now, they want to do that, they have to come through us,” said California Teachers Association President Dean Vogel.

They don’t dare. No meaningful reform bill appears to have even the slightest chance in the Democratic-controlled Legislature this year. Even the mildest attempts to strengthen the teacher-evaluation process have been put on hold.

Tom Torlakson, the union water boy who was elected to the supposedly nonpartisan office of superintendent of public instruction with heavy union support, even suggested last weekend that “you’re sure not much of a Democrat” if you support the reformers’ agenda.

The message is clear, as surely from the teachers unions as the NRA: Stray from the party line and you’re a target.

“Forget the 120 legislators and the governor,” said Gloria Romero, a former Democratic state senator who regards breaking up the union-dominated status quo as a civil rights issue for the African American and Latino students who are being served poorly by public schools. “Nothing gets done unless you bow down and get (the teacher unions’) permission – unless you can find an escape route, nothing gets done in Sacramento.”

Dan Schnur, erstwhile top-drawer Republican consultant who now directs the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California, recently changed his registration to the fastest-growing group in California: decline to state. Some of his Democratic friends have asked why the centrist Schnur simply didn’t go from red to blue.

“I have as much difficulty with the NEA as the NRA,” replies Schnur, in reference to the National Education Association with its union dogma and insistence that Democrats follow it to the letter – or else.

“You could replace one letter and have the exact same conversation in reverse,” Schnur said.

So true.

The twist in all this is that the education reform groups condemned by California Democrats last week espouse ideas embraced by, among others, Obama, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Newark, N.J., Mayor Cory Booker – Democrats all.

“It’s not exactly a fringe group,” Schnur observed.

Nor is there anything fringe or evil about another idea condemned in a resolution by the Democratic party: the need to curtail abuses of the more than 40-year-old California Environmental Quality Act. Advocates of changes – including Gov. Jerry Brown, who has called its revision “the Lord’s word” – have presented persuasive evidence that it’s being exploited for reasons that have nothing to do with environmental preservations. Businesses are using its loosely cast rules to disadvantage competitors. Labor unions are using it to coerce agreements out of developers. It is being used against urban infill developments, renewable energy projects and other decidedly green endeavors.

Still, some labor and environmental groups have drawn lines in the sand against any meaningful revisions – and the timidity of the Democratic supermajority to defy them is plain.

Obama recently proposed the most modest possible adjustment to Social Security – using a more precise cost-of-living formula that would reduce increases by about 0.3 percent a year – and some Democrats howled as if he were unraveling the legacy of Franklin D. Roosevelt. Rep. Jared Huffman, D-Santa Rosa, suggested there was “no way to sugarcoat” the damage to the program or the effect on his 81-year-old mother’s tight budget.

Please spare us the hyperventilation. This absolutism is out of control, on both sides of the aisle. It’s preventing our selected officials from getting serious about the big issues they should be confronting.

Too many of them seem more worried about getting a perfect score from an interest group than summoning the courage to do something about gun violence, failing schools, litigation abuse or the fiscal trajectory that will deprive future generations of a secure retirement.

Lines in the sand, left and right

Why is so little getting done in Sacramento and Washington? All those do-nothing pledges are a major factor:

School reform

The need: Increase parental choice, link test scores to teacher evaluations, make it easier to get rid of underperforming teachers.

Who’s behind it: Various reform groups and certain politicians of both parties – notably President Obama and L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.

Who’s blocking it: Teachers unions, which hold great sway over Democratic lawmakers, especially in Sacramento.

Entitlement reform

The need: To acknowledge the demographic trend – more retirees, fewer workers – and develop ways to make the systems sustainable.

Who’s behind it: Myriad groups and analysts who recognize that Social Security and Medicare spending are consumer-increasing portions of the budget.

Who’s blocking it: Democrats who resist the slightest adjustments to benefits.

Guns

The need: At a minimum, require background checks on sales at gun shows and on the Internet.

Who’s behind it: Many law enforcement leaders, mayors and others who deal with the effects of gun violence.

Who’s blocking it: NRA and gun lobby, with the assistance of many Republicans and some rural-state Democrats.

Prop. 13

The need: To revisit the 1978 initiative to address its loopholes for commercial property and to reconsider its fairness to homeowners.

Who’s behind it: Some Democrats and tax-fairness advocates.

Who’s blocking it: Antitax groups and others who consider the voter-approved measure to be sacrosanct, regardless of inequities.

John Diaz is The San Francisco Chronicle’s editorial page editor. E-mail: diaz@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @johndiazchron

Read full column here. 

U-T San Diego Opinion Editorial, Jerry Sanders and Barry Schultz: Modernizing Environmental Act Should Be Priority, 4/20/13

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April 22  |  News, News Articles  |   afrew

Recently, U-T San Diego editorialized about one individual misusing the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) in an attempt to block a city of Oceanside approved plan to allow Waste Management to replace 42 diesel-fueled garbage trucks with clean-burning natural gas vehicles that would reduce air pollution in our region by the equivalent of removing 3,100 cars from the roads. Unfortunately, the Oceanside case is not an isolated example of California’s signature environmental law, CEQA, actually being used to the detriment of our environment and our region. A CEQA lawsuit has also indefinitely blocked implementation of the San Diego Association of Government’s recently developed plan guiding future growth in our region that is designed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 14 percent, preserve more than half the region’s land as open space, and invest twice as much in pollution-reducing mass transit as roads and freeways.

All over California, there are examples of CEQA being abused for non-environmental reasons to block projects that would actually benefit the environment – from solar power plants to infill housing, from pollution-reducing mass transit to bike paths. In fact, according to a legal review of recent CEQA cases at the Appellate or Supreme Court levels, more than half (59 percent) were filed against infill projects and 36 percent were filed against public works projects like schools, universities or roads. With abuses like these common throughout California, the time has come to modernize CEQA to ensure it is fulfilling its original intent – environmental protection – while stamping out abuses of the law hindering responsible growth and job creation. Gov. Jerry Brown has long advocated for reform, calling it “the Lord’s work” and referring to the law as a “vampire.” We want to thank Gov. Brown for his continued call for CEQA reform and his pledge to try to work out a solution while he is governor.

Senate President Darrell Steinberg recently began this process by introducing Senate Bill 731, legislation that sets up the initial framework for CEQA modernization discussions. SB 731 includes language expressing the intent to ensure CEQA works to protect the environment, while stamping out abuses that are slowing the environmentally desirable projects, jobs and economic growth we need. We commend Sen. Steinberg for his leadership. Progressing from SB 731’s current intent language to crafting actual legislation that will modernize CEQA to accomplish its stated goals will not be easy and will take a great deal of time and participation from diverse stakeholders. When CEQA was passed in the 1970s, California didn’t have the plethora of environmental laws and regulations that now exist. In the 43 years since CEQA was passed, more than 120 additional federal, state, and local land-use laws have been passed to protect our environment and regulate growth. We’ve passed laws like the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, the California Global Warming Solutions Act, and much, much more. California today has the toughest environmental protection standards in the nation and even the world.

Compliance with these stringent environmental thresholds should mean something. SB 731 should be carefully crafted to ensure that projects that “play by the rules” and conform with California’s stringent body of environmental laws and that meet a community’s extensive environmental plans and locally-adopted standards are not held up by meritless litigation that has little to do with the environment. Those opposed to CEQA modernization claim the law works well and no changes are needed. But case after case of abuse of CEQA clearly demonstrates a need for reform. Those opposed to changing CEQA also claim that those of us advocating for reform are trying to weaken our environmental standards.

That’s simply not the case.

CEQA modernization legislation can and should protect the most important parts of the law that are working well. CEQA should continue to serve as a process that requires open and public dialogue about proposed projects, that serves as a forum for community members to have a voice in local decision making, and that requires project proponents to mitigate their environmental impacts. But when CEQA is abused as a blunt instrument to stop cleaner burning trucks, to stop investments in pollution reducing mass transit – clearly it’s time for some reform.

Sanders is president & CEO of the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce; Schultz, former chair of San Diego Planning Commission, is senior counsel at Stutz, Artiano, Shinoff & Holtz, focusing on land use, affordable housing and sustainable development.

Read full oped here.