The hasty plan to revise the state’s long-standing environmental quality law died a quick death in Sacramento Thursday and that’s good news for California.
Not that the California Environmental Quality Act might not be ripe for an update, or at least a public, no-holds-barred discussion of how the law is being used and whether it’s still doing what it was designed to do.
That wasn’t what was going to happen, though. Instead, a bunch of legislators unhappy about environmental regulations decided this week to jam through a business-friendly bill that would limit lawsuits that could be filed under CEQA, a landmark environmental law signed in 1970 by Gov. Ronald Reagan.
Never mind that the last day for bills to be introduced in the Legislature was Feb. 24 or that all bills had to pass out of their house of origin by June 1.
The only real deadline is today, which is the last chance for bills to be amended on the floor before the end of the session next Friday.
In the California Legislature, that means it’s time for “gut and amend,” an insider process that allows a bill that’s made its way through months of committee meetings and public hearings can have its guts stripped out and replaced by a new, totally unrelated bill, such as, just for an example, one that makes major changes to a 42-year-old law that’s been the centerpiece of the state’s environmental protection effort.
That process avoids all that annoying public discussion required by the state Constitution. Instead, the new, totally rewritten bill gets just the briefest of looks before going to the floor for a vote, limiting the time for opponents to raise an outcry and for voters to discover what’s really going on.
Sometimes, though, the legislative sleight of hand can be too crass for even lawmakers to swallow, especially when it runs the risk of offending supporters.
“This law, for all its strengths and its faults, is far too important to rewrite in the last days of the session,” state Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg said Thursday, promising that the bill would receive a full hearing next year.
Of course, if the sponsors of the anti-CEQA measure actually wanted that complete public discussion, they could have had the bill ready by the February deadline. It’s not as though Republicans and a surprising number of Democrats haven’t been dreaming for years of changing the state’s environmental rules.
But that months-long process gives environmental groups way too much time to rally their supporters – also known as voters – against the change and could force, you know, compromises.
Not that Republicans and their allies in the business and development community are alone in their efforts to play fast and loose with the rules of open government.
It was easy for Steinberg to stand up and talk piously about the need for a full hearing on the CEQA when his own party was split and their allies in the environmental community were up in arms.
But what about the likely effort to gut and amend a bill and replace it with one that would allow young undocumented aliens, eligible for work permits under Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals plan, aka Dream Act Lite, to get California driver’s licenses?
That’s a hot button issue for the Democrats’ Latino supporters and one that Republicans certainly believe is “far too important to rewrite in the last days of the session.”
Maybe that also should wait for a full hearing next year.
Before the session ends next week, there will be plenty of other efforts to slip bills through without much notice or discussion and legislators, as always, will find themselves voting on dozens of bills they’ve never been given a chance to read.
Government transparency is a good and necessary rule, all politicians agree. Unless, of course, it’s inconvenient.
John Wildermuth is a longtime writer on California politics.