Democrats in Sacramento are Still Trying to Gut CEQA—Even Berkeley's Senator Hancock

By Becky O'Malley
Friday May 03, 2013 - 08:50:00 AM

When I lived in Michigan, I was a hold-your-nose-and-pull-the-Democratic-lever kinda gal, but in the long time I’ve been in the East Bay it’s gotten harder and harder to do. No, I never thought anyone would know or care if I voted for Ralph Nader, and the one time I met him he was quite surly, so voting for him instead of Gore or Obama was never a temptation.

Some people hold the sacramental view of voting—you should vote for the candidate you believe in, regardless of consequences—but I’m a pragmatist. The firm grip that the usually-liberal machine has on the Democratic party in the East Bay makes participation in elections here just about pointless—and besides, the machine picks usually perform pretty well, all things considered.

Lately, however, some of the people I’ve voted for have been annoying me. Actually, on the national level, annoying isn’t even the word for President Obama’s seeming inability or unwillingness to deal with the continuing situation of the prisoners at Guantanamo. No one, regardless of what they may or may not have done, should be treated the way these guys are being treated, and they haven’t even been convicted of anything. Appalling. Candidate Obama promised change, but he hasn’t delivered.

Then, moving to California, we have Governor Jerry Brown’s, yes, more than annoying, though not surprising, attack on the California Environmental Quality Act. He’s opposed by both labor unions and environmentalists, two groups which don’t always agree, though both usually endorse Democrats. It’s not clear why the governor in his second incarnation wants to gut one of the earliest and probably the best state environmental laws in the country—he’s called CEQA a "vampire" that needs "a silver stake through it"—but you can be sure money has a lot to do with it. Traditionally, developer cash has been the biggest part of campaign contributions to both Democrats and Republicans. 

And there are plenty more corporate contributors from other industries looking to stop CEQA too. 

The original Democrat carrying water for the stop-CEQA crowd, Sen. Michael Rubio, D-Bakersfield, who was the head of the State Senate’s Environmental Quality Committee, and whose name was on the first gut-CEQA bill Brown endorsed, left the Senate recently to become a lobbyist for Chevron. Go figure. 

Brown subsequently announced that CEQA “reform” was dead for this term, but State Senate Majority Leader Darrell Steinberg picked up the ball (or the water bucket), backing a new version of the proposal which passed its first test on Wednesday by being unanimously voted out of the Senate Environmental Quality Committee. 

Even the self-styled environmentalist senators on the committee, including Berkeley’s Senator Loni Hancock, voted for the bill Steinberg was pushing. This vote was taken by a number of pro-revision commentators to be a good sign. Most of these also seemed to think that there would be more changes in their favor made on the Senate floor before the final version of the bill was passed. 

The unions and environmentalist groups haven’t commented yet, but one attorney specializing in environmental litigation to whom I spoke listed a couple of major problems with the Steinberg bill as it now stands. It permits applicants whose Environmental Impact Report is deemed inadequate to start their project even as they’re still working to correct identified deficiencies in the research they’re supposed to have done. What this means is that questionable projects would be able to go forward even if the full EIR might eventually uncover potential environmental harm impossible to eliminate or mitigate. 

A second cause for his concern is a new procedure which would create fixed thresholds or standards to determine whether a project is harmful. He gave as an example the monster homes which the nouveaux riches in the 1% are now trying to build all over California. A multi-million dollar 10,000 square foot mega-mansion like the one Mitch Kapor is now trying to persuade the Supreme Court to allow him to build here might be fine in flat suburban Bakersfield but too large on a slippery slope at the top of the Berkeley Hills, yet a single standard for allowable size might apply to both projects. 

A particular danger area is for cities like Berkeley affected by SB 375, another Steinberg-sponsored bill which is already law. It exempts a large number of building projects near designated transit hubs from many forms of CEQA oversight. Its stated goal is to reduce automobile use and to prevent sprawl into exurban areas, but critics fear that it simply allows unexamined densification that makes cities more unpleasant places to live without controlling expansion on the periphery. 

Today’s Chronicle front page has an excellent Kevin Fagan piece about spillover from Silicon Valley (too crowded, too expensive) into places like San Ramon. His focus is educated Asian immigrant families, but the same phenomenon exists among other successful techies who outgrow their urban condos. Lotus founder Mitch Kapor’s midlife desire to leave Cambridge to build a huge house atop a Berkeley hill is just one example. 

Berkeley constituents should ask Senator Hancock why she and her Democratic colleagues on the committee brought this bad bill to the floor of the Senate. There powerful business interests are sure to find more Rubios in the Democratic ranks to advocate for what they want, instead of what voters thought they were getting when they voted for Democrats. Some will argue that the latest version of the stop-CEQA bill is not as bad as the original Brown/Rubio product, but the lesser of two evils is still evil. The environmental groups and the unions who oppose CEQA revision are the backbone of the Democratic party, and any crusade which goes counter to such strong party members is a bad idea. 

If you’d like to ask committee members what they think they’re doing, here are links to their websites, which contain their contact information. 

Senator Jerry Hill (Chair)
Senator Ted Gaines (Vice Chair)
Senator Ron Calderon
Senator Ellen M. Corbett
Senator Jean Fuller
Senator Loni Hancock
Senator Hannah-Beth Jackson
Senator Mark Leno
Senator Fran Pavley 

Notice that as of this writing, not one of them, Democrat or Republican, has mentioned on her or his site their vote to release the Steinberg bill. You might ask them (especially our own Senator Hancock) why this should be. 

And also, you might ask what they can do from now on to make sure that CEQA isn’t further eviscerated on the Senate floor. 

After all, that’s not what we expected when we voted for them, is it?