Senate President Pro-Tem Darrell Steinberg knows the California Environmental Quality Act needs to be reformed. Why else would he make a last-minute push to exempt a proposed NBA arena in Sacramento, a top priority of his, from provisions of the law?
Yet Steinberg won’t agree to broader CEQA reforms that would do for the rest of the state what he wants to do for the Sacramento Kings. CEQA reform for me, but not for thee?
We are often supportive of Steinberg’s ideas. But this time, the hypocrisy is hard to take.
The Environmental Quality Act signed by Gov. Ronald Reagan in 1970 requires studies of the environmental effects of proposed development and requires public and private builders to mitigate the effects or explain why they can’t. It’s a key reason the state has been able to preserve much of its natural beauty as its economy boomed.
But CEQA is regularly abused. Labor unions use it to extract concessions from developers. NIMBYs use it to stop development in their backyards. And businesses use it to stop competitors from expanding. The law needs to be updated to help stop these abuses.
Steinberg has a bill to reform CEQA, SB 731, but it falls short of what’s needed — and it could even make matters worse in some cases. The bill might not make it through the Legislature, even with some changes Steinberg says he’ll make. And if it does, it’s unclear whether Gov. Jerry Brown would sign it, since he has said he wants real reform.
So, Steinberg is pushing a separate bill to fast-track construction of his city’s arena, since, as part of a deal to keep the Kings in Sacramento, construction must be completed by 2017. The bill is similar to exceptions made for a proposed stadium in Los Angeles and for the 49ers’ stadium in Santa Clara, but the hypocrisy level wasn’t quite the same.
“When it comes to infill projects, when it comes to high-wage, big job-opportunity projects,” Steinberg said about the arena bill, “we ought to do all that is reasonable to expedite the process.”
Well said. The new arena will be a boon to Sacramento’s economy and its downtown. But why shouldn’t other economic development projects — not just stadiums with powerful supporters — get the same treatment?
Steinberg isn’t stupid. He has to recognize this gigantic hole in his logic. But he can’t get agreement on broader changes from the labor and environmental groups that support him.
If special interests continue abusing CEQA, and if Sacramento continues giving exemptions to those it favors without reforming the law for all, public support of CEQA could falter over time. That could open the door to sweeping changes that would weaken CEQA’s valuable environmental protections, which truly would be harmful to California.
Lawmakers need to add meaningful protections to SB 731 — the kind Steinberg wants for his own constituents.