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Who Needs CEQA When You’ve Got Local Ballot Measures?

Joe Mathews
Connecting California Columnist and Editor, Zócalo Public Square, Fellow at the Center for Social Cohesion at Arizona State University and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (UC Press, 2010)

CEQA reform could be a good thing for California. But it’s also overrated. Especially in a state with direct democracy.

So let me offer the following prediction: if CEQA is changed to reduce the ability of businesses to use the law to frustrate competitors and to make it harder for local communities and environmental groups to hold up projects, one big result will be an explosion of local ballot measures.

Initiatives and referenda at the local level in California already are a proven way for businesses to fight each other and for groups to, at the very least, delay. A less powerful CEQA would make such local ballot measures even more attractive for this kind of warfare.

This shift would be an improvement in some ways. A local ballot measure is a more public process, with more input from regular people, than a CEQA contest. But it would still be costly and time-consuming to do business in California communities. CEQA reform is no panacea in a state where it’s so easy to obstruct.

What could be done? Not much. It may be tempting to try to restrict local direct democracy as a companion to CEQA reform, but it’s probably impossible. The California constitution’s strong protections for direct democracy, combined with a 1970s U.S. Supreme Court decision that permitted referenda on local land use questions, create high legal hurdles for any such restrictions.

So we should probably just resign ourselves to the fact that there will be winners and losers. CEQA reform may cut into the lawyers’ business. But it should be good for the petition circulators.

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