Even California Democrats See Need for Regulatory Reform

Although many of California’s legislative Democrats are eager to
“test drive” the new two-thirds majorities their caucuses hold in
both chambers—i.e., pushing the limits of their power to advance
their progressive agenda—others are focusing on a sensible reform
that almost everyone knows is slowing job growth.Passed in 1970 at the height of the nation’s push to clean up
the environment, the California Environmental Quality Act, known as
CEQA (pronounced See-Kwa), created a convoluted bureaucratic
process to “mitigate” environmental harm from major new projects.
One can argue whether the high costs the act imposes in terms of
delays and reports have helped preserve the state’s ecology, but
there’s no question it delays the construction of just about
everything.CEQA has been a boon not only to enterprising consultants who
prepare foot-high stacks of Environmental Impact Statements, but
for lawyers, NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) groups, environmental
activists, and labor unions that manipulate the process for cynical
reasons that have nothing to do with identifying and reducing
potential environmental harm.Local NIMBYs use it to stop anything that might be built in
their neighborhood. Some environmentalists are adamantly
“no-growth” and use it to oppose any and all projects. We know what
lawyers get out of it. Unions routinely file CEQA suits—or threaten
to do so—to coerce developers into approving union-only Project
Labor Agreements. You can only impose so many new costs on a
project before it becomes less feasible to build it.For example, in one case of CEQA abuse, a gas-station owner used
the process to slow down the expansion of a competitive gas station
across the street. In another case, local residents used CEQA to
delay by two years (and add about $3 million in costs) the
construction of a low-income senior-citizens housing project in
Berkeley. This type of thing is as ridiculous as it is
commonplace.The Legislative Analyst’s Office notes that the current economic
recovery—or whatever one wants to call the modest economic rebound
that might be taking place—is not resulting in the creation of many
new jobs, especially in California. The Democrats’ new group of
self-styled moderates, who hold immense power in the Capitol now
that the GOP is essentially dead, have made job creation their top
priority. So CEQA is a reasonable target.Republicans have long pushed for regulatory reform,
understanding the role excessive regulations play in dampening
economic growth. Oddly enough, then, one of the first orders of
business in the new Democratic-dominated Legislature is an issue
that Republicans should applaud.Gov. Jerry Brown set the stage for CEQA reform in his State of
the State address: “We also need to rethink and streamline our
regulatory procedures, particularly the California Environmental
Quality Act. Our approach needs to be based on consistent standards
that provide greater certainty and cut needless delays.”In his first terms as governor, Brown devoted himself to
undermining the kind of big infrastructure projects championed by
his dad, Gov. Pat Brown. As Rep. Tom McClintock (R-Calif.) has
written about Jerry Brown: “He enacted volumes of environmental
regulations that created severe impediments to home and commercial
construction, empowering an incipient no-growth movement that began
on the most extreme fringe of the environmental cause and quickly
spread.” In his recent tenure as attorney general, Brown used the
state’s cap-and-trade law (AB32) to gum up the works in new
development by claiming that the projects would heighten the
global-warming problem.So what gives?These days, Brown and his Democratic allies have unchecked power
in the Capitol and they don’t want anything getting in the way of
the projects they favor. The most obvious example is High-Speed
Rail. If CEQA has any redeeming features, it is this—it applies to
public projects also and forces the government sector to deal with
the same regulations it imposes on the rest of us. If that weren’t
the case, there would be no push for reform.But, again, this is a great bipartisan issue. As former
California governors Pete Wilson, Gray Davis, and George Deukmejian
argued in a recent column, “Sadly, documented cases of CEQA abuse
include examples where CEQA has stood in the way of renewable
energy projects, infill housing, schools, hospitals, universities,
public transit, and needed infrastructure. In fact, CEQA is often a
direct barrier to the sustainable and environmentally friendly
growth that California aspires to achieve.”Even with such high-powered support, reform isn’t a slam dunk
given expected opposition from environmental groups.Gov. Brown has recently been in a highly publicized rhetorical
match with Texas Gov. Rick Perry over their respective states’
business climates. Perry has had much success in luring California
businesses to his lower-tax, lower-regulation state. Brown has
chided Perry and champions the new balanced budget here as evidence
of the Golden State’s rebound.Instead of wasting time in a rhetorical battle, Gov. Brown
should acknowledge that California is a tough place to do business
and focus on those reforms that actually make California a better
place to create jobs. CEQA is a great starting point.

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Even California Democrats See Need for Regulatory Reform

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