Republicans Have Opportunity to Broaden CEQA Reforms
Feb 01, 2013
Did you read this week’s Sacramento Bee profile of California State Senator Michael Rubio (D-Bakersfield)? (If not, see “Moderate Michael Rubio Takes on California's Environmental Law.”)
He’s leading the call in the state legislature to reform the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). For taking that counterintuitive position as a member of the Democrat legislative supermajority that was elected with support from environmental organizations, Senator Rubio is getting extensive statewide media attention.
In fact, by responding proactively to a top legislative priority of major business groups and corporations, Senator Rubio is positioning himself quite well for a future campaign for statewide office.
The headline of the Sacramento Bee article describes Rubio as a “moderate.” Few labels could be more advantageous for an ambitious Democrat politician in California.
Before Californians Republicans and other true supporters of economic growth and job creation get too excited about the possibility of reasonable and meaningful CEQA reform in 2013, be aware that Senator Rubio also strongly supports the union political agenda.
And if you examine Rubio’s past legislation and current commentary about CEQA reform, you’ll see how that union support appears to compromise his willingness to address some of the most costly and intrusive CEQA exploitation.
Rubio Was the Lead Agent for Unions to Crush Local Rebellions for Fiscal Responsibility
I had the displeasure of observing Senator Rubio pander to union lobbyists when he served as their legislative point man in crushing local resistance togovernment-mandated Project Labor Agreements. He was certainly not a moderate at those legislative hearings.
In September 2011, Senator Rubio presented a last-minute gut-and-amend bill at a hastily-organized hearing of the Assembly Business and Professions Committee. Senate Bill 922 had been an innocuous bill about immunizations and tuberculosis screening. It was hijacked by Senate leader Darrell Steinberg and Assembly leader John Perez in a swiftly implemented plot to nullify “Fair and Open Competition” policies at local governments.
Voters and elected officials at the local level were enacting charter provisions and ordinances that prohibited government mandates for construction companies to sign Project Labor Agreements with unions as a condition of winning a contract. The movement was spreading throughout the state, and signatures were being gathered on petitions to put proposed Fair and Open Competition ordinances on the ballot in Sacramento County, the City of Sacramento, and the City of San Diego. Union leaders needed to stop the movement, fast.
Senator Rubio promoted Senate Bill 922 on behalf of the new sponsor, the State Building and Construction Trades Council of California. Despite opposition from business groups, the League of California Cities, the California State Association of Counties, and a dozen newspaper editorials, Governor Brown signed it into law.
After union lawyers discovered that Senate Bill 922 had a drafting error, Senator Rubio introduced a new bill in 2012 for construction unions – Senate Bill 829 – which cut off state funding for any of the 121 California cities with charters (local home-rule constitutions) where voters or elected officials enacted Fair and Open Competition policies. That bill also became law.
No one can claim that Senator Rubio isn’t effective in getting the union political agenda enacted into law.
By leading the legislative push for Senate Bill 922 and Senate Bill 829, Senator Rubio suppressed the democratic will of voters and the authority of local governments to manage their own affairs. He apparently also suppressed memories about his experience as a member of the Kern County Board of Supervisors in responding to excessive and inappropriate interference from the state government. (To be fair, that forgetfulness happens to many former local government officials after they become members of the California State Legislature.)
Rubio’s CEQA Reform Leaves Union “Greenmail” Unscathed
Now Senator Rubio is the champion of CEQA reform, or so they say. How many people actually read his “Sustainable Environmental Protection Act” that was supposed to whip through the legislature at the last minute in 2012 as the gutted-and-amended Senate Bill 317?
While business groups issued press releases and tweets hailing this proposed CEQA reform, I obtained a copy of the draft language and analyzed its potential effectiveness by seeing how each provision could derail a typical CEQA objection filed by construction unions. I chose to apply the language to a CEQA complaint targeted against a developer who was resisting union demands to sign a Project Labor Agreement for construction of a proposed solar power plant in Fresno County.
Its effectiveness was questionable, at best. I concluded that the “Sustainable Environmental Protection Act” might derail some of the small-time CEQA complaints filed by groups of ordinary people against undesirable proposed projects in their neighborhoods; however, it would do little to discourage the massive CEQA objections filed by experienced CEQA law firms that work on behalf of labor unions.
Rubio’s neglect of addressing union CEQA abuse (often called “greenmail”) was and remains deliberate, of course.
Notice that Senator Rubio never mentions unions as a primary culprit in CEQA abuse, even though he saw it firsthand as a member of the Kern County Board of Supervisors when six construction unions hired a law firm to object to a refinery modernization. In fact, he praised those unions at an October 21, 2008 meeting and slammed a critic by name for his public comments accusing the unions of using CEQA as an extortion tool.
He never mentions how unions intervened at the California Energy Commission in the permitting process for Kern County gas-fired merchant power plants as the state’s energy crisis developed ten years ago. Even the Wall Street Journal reported on that racket.
When Senator Rubio writes about CEQA objections blocking “green” energy projects in Kern County, he never mentions that construction unions supplement local community activists in using CEQA to block such projects, unless their demands for a labor agreement are met. He doesn’t mention the planned distribution warehouse in Visalia held up with a CEQA complaint by a truck drivers’ union, or the Wal-Mart store in Bakersfield held up with a CEQA complaint by a grocery store workers’ union. Meanwhile, he doesn’t inquire why unions don’t have any environmental concerns with a proposed hydrogen energy plant in Buttonwillow that greatly concerns legitimate environmental organizations. (The developer has committed to sign a Project Labor Agreement with the unions.)
A Possible Republican Response: Analyze Before Praising, and Demand Real Reform
Considering that Senator Rubio may be able to ride on his leadership in CEQA reform to future statewide office, and considering that environmental groups may convince some legislative Democrats to oppose any CEQA reform, how should Republicans respond to Senator Rubio’s specific proposal?
When he actually introduces the bill, Republicans should refrain from immediate commendation and instead take the time to analyze it, line-by-line, to determine if such language would have been effective in discouraging notorious union CEQA threats against projects such as Gaylord Entertainment’s now-abandoned Bayfront Hotel and Conference Center in Chula Vista or the San Diego Convention Center Expansion Phase 3, for which hotel and construction unions dropped CEQA objections after obtaining commitments for union monopolies in employment.
If Senator Rubio’s bill does nothing but suppress the simple CEQA complaints of elderly long-time California residents who are upset about an apartment complex proposed for their rural community, Republicans should resist the corporate pressure to vote for it anyway as pro-business “CEQA reform.”
Instead, Republicans need to ensure that Senator Rubio’s CEQA reform proposal discourages ALL parties that exploit CEQA for purposes unrelated to environmental protection, including unions that engage in “greenmail” to coerce labor agreements or other economic concessions from project applicants.
Critics of the 43-year-old legislation say it has become a tool for special interest groups to thwart development, or to coerce project managers into accepting their terms, a process referred to derisively as "greenmail."
"It's a weapon misused by people who want to stop something," said Keith Woods, chief executive officer of the North Coast Builders Exchange.
Gov. Jerry Brown and Democratic Party leaders in both houses of the state Legislature have stated their willingness to change the law. So far they've not released specific details.
State Sen. Noreen Evans, D-Santa Rosa, has emerged as a major player in the debate as a defender of the status quo, or even adding more provisions to the law that in some instances would be anathema to business interests.
Evans did not return a message Thursday seeking comment.
In an opinion piece the senator co-authored this week for Capitol Weekly, Evans wrote that CEQA "continues to provide essential environmental protections" and has "empowered community members to hold public agencies accountable."
The California Environmental Quality Act was signed into law by Gov. Ronald Reagan and over the decades has been updated with new regulations.
"The important thing to remember is that CEQA, since its inception, has enabled California to have one of the cleanest, and one of the most restored, environments of any state in the country," said David Keller, a former Petaluma City Council member and current member of the Petaluma River Council.
He said he supports Evans' calls for more transparency in the process, which the senator wrote would include translating documents for people who don't speak English as their first language.
Others appear to be seeking more sweeping changes. Among them is State Sen. Michael Rubio, D-Bakersfield, who has complained that CEQA was used to stop "green projects," such as those involving wind and solar power, when Rubio served as a Kern County supervisor.
Evans, however, stated her opposition to blanket exemptions for such projects in her Capitol Weekly piece, writing that utility-scale renewable energy or high-speed rail can have "significant environmental and public health impacts."
She also recommended adding an "environmental justice component" to the process and raising the standard for overriding considerations that allow environmentally damaging projects to move forward without "sufficient mitigation."
Keller said his understanding of the environmental justice provision is that it would require planners to consider the cumulative and community-wide impacts of proposed development, particularly in poorer areas of the state.
Evans will have a say in any proposed changes to CEQA as a member of the Senate Committee on Natural Resources and Water. She wrote that she also is considering introducing bills aimed at making the changes she has outlined.
You can reach Staff Writer Derek Moore at 521-5336 or email@example.com. On Twitter @deadlinederek.