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CEQA’s Union Shop of Horrors

Charles Crumpley
Editor of the Los Angeles Business Journal

If you operate a business in California, you’ve probably heard of CEQA horror stories – about how it delays construction projects and makes them far more expensive. Heck, you may have passed around a few of those stories, too, since the business sector’s disgust with CEQA has attained an almost mythic status. It’s the state law that businesses love to hate.

But CEQA – the acronym for the California Environmental Quality Act – has an impact that goes beyond the business sector. It hurts workers, too. Mostly union workers.

In an attempt to figure out how much pain CEQA may be inflicting on the lunch-bucket crowd, an organization called the CEQA Working Group (which, it should be noted, exists to reform CEQA) hired John Husing, the Inland Empire economist, to try to figure it out. His report came out last week, and it was sure interesting.

He examined seven projects that, he said, were typical examples of CEQA-impacted construction jobs. He concluded that, just for those seven projects, 3,245 prevailing-wage jobs were delayed at least a year or killed because of CEQA litigation, which means $326 million in annual wages and benefits for union workers were put at risk.

Those numbers may seem kind of paltry but remember, they were just for seven projects. Hundreds of CEQA lawsuits are filed each year. Said Husing: “It can be concluded then, that thousands of prevailing-wage union jobs are lost or delayed by CEQA every year, as well as billions in lost wages and benefits for union workers.”

Let’s look at one of his examples: the 6.6-mile segment of the Expo Line from Culver City to Santa Monica.

The normal environmental and public-approval process was such a death march that it hurts just reading this from the report: “In developing the project’s Draft Environmental Impact Report, 1,800 comments were received. Another 9,000 were received when the draft was circulated. Further analysis was then undertaken plus coordination with other agencies and community outreach. The Final EIR incorporated numerous proposed changes and was circulated for public comment in December 2009. Following a public hearing, the project was approved and the Final EIR certified in February 2010.”

And then, well, you can predict what happened next: The CEQA horror story began. A group of homeowners filed a CEQA lawsuit to overturn the whole process. They lost in court and lost an appeal but went to the California Supreme Court anyway where they lost again, finally, last month.

Altogether, the CEQA litigation stopped construction of that stretch of the Expo Line for nearly 3½ years. Husing estimated that delayed 679 union jobs – at a time when the economy was in a recession and construction jobs were scant.

Businesses don’t like CEQA because – and you’ve probably heard the horror stories – it’s a well-intentioned law that’s been hijacked by professional greenmailers who threaten CEQA lawsuits until they are paid to go away; by NIMBY groups who campaign for some specific change in a project to placate them even if it hurts everyone else; and by businesses scheming to thwart competitors who are trying to build something.

But blue-collar workers are hurt by CEQA, too. You’d think union workers would be demanding reform of CEQA. After all, a more rational CEQA would result in more work for them. But alas, their bosses, the union chiefs, like to use CEQA as a bargaining tool to extract promises of union-only work, or so-called project labor agreements. That way, the chiefs can angle for more power and money, even if it hurts their members.

Lots of business folks thought this was the year to get meaningful CEQA reform through the state Legislature. But with the session expiring this Friday, well, maybe next year.

Besides, Darrell Steinberg, the Senate president, is in no hurry. He thinks CEQA is pretty fine just the way it is. Actually, he’d like it even stronger. Earlier this year he inserted language in the “reform” bill that would make it even easier to delay projects under CEQA.

Interestingly, Steinberg did introduce a CEQA-related bill a little more than a week ago. You see, Steinberg represents Sacramento, and his town wants a new pro basketball arena to help cement the Kings there. Steinberg’s bill would exempt the proposed basketball arena from most CEQA challenges.

Just the latest in CEQA horror stories.

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