On July 12th, the San Diego Union Tribune ran an opinion editorial co-written by former California Governors Gray Davis, Pete Wilson, and George Deukmejian as members of the Southern California Leadership Council.  The Op-Ed urgently called for CEQA modernization.  As the three governors put it, “While CEQA’s original intent must remain intact, now is the time to end reckless abuses of this important law; abuses that are threatening California’s economic vitality, costing jobs, and are wasting valuable taxpayer dollars.”

The governors’ call was urgent because the economic consequences of CEQA abuse can no longer be tolerated – there is simply too much at risk for California.  Their main point is that CEQA abuse (not CEQA itself) has become an impediment to our state’s recovery and that balance between environmental and economic concerns must be restored.  As the governors’ stated, we must have a willingness to “relentlessly advance smart reforms of environmental laws, business regulations, or policies that unnecessarily disrupt the reasonable balance between being ‘green’ and ‘golden.’”

In recent weeks, numerous groups joined the chorus calling for CEQA modernization.  By last Wednesday (August 22nd) this growing chorus included some legislative leaders and Governor Brown, who said that day, “CEQA reform is the Lord’s work.”  Later the same day, Democrat Senator Michael Rubio amended one of his bills (SB 317) to include comprehensive CEQA modernization.  This late session “gut and amend” got everyone’s attention.  By the end of the day there was a palpable sense of optimism among the supporters of CEQA modernization, a diverse coalition that includes labor, schools, hospitals, clean technology companies, local government and business.

However, by the following day, any thoughts of an end of session CEQA fix were short lived when Senate Leader Darrell Steinberg and Senator Rubio appeared together before the press to announce that, out of deference to the legislative process, Rubio would hold back on his reform measure for now.  As Senator Steinberg said, “This law, for all its strengths and its faults, is far too important to rewrite in the last days of the session.”

For many, this would have appeared be the end of the story and further evidence that CEQA reform remains an impossibility in Sacramento.  In this case, that might be a premature conclusion.  Especially when you consider what else Steinberg and Rubio said last Thursday.

Standing before the press, both Senators promised to take on the issue of CEQA reform next year and produce meaningful legislation.  As Steinberg stated, “We’re going to take it on and we’re going to take it on in a big way.”  He then added, “But do it in the only way good things get done around here and that is to sit down, beginning in the interim, to sit down over the course of weeks and months and grind through the tough issues and make the fair compromises.”  Taken at his word, Senate Leader Steinberg’s comments would indicate that the CEQA debate is not ending, but just beginning, as he has now begun to outline a timeline and process for this issue.

When Governors Davis, Wilson, and Deukmejian wrote about CEQA modernization in July, they didn’t speak to a specific process or a specific bill.  They instead conveyed a very justified sense of urgency, outlined their recommended prescription and called upon our state leaders to lead.

It now appears that Senator Steinberg has answered this call and, based on other comments and signals; it appears that Assembly Speaker Perez and Governor Brown are also willing to take on CEQA modernization.  Add to this the dozens of other members of the State Legislature (both Democrat and Republican), and the growing and diverse coalition of groups, organizations and individuals all around the state who are calling for CEQA modernization and it is clear that this issue is alive and well.

Yes, a bill has died and we will not see CEQA modernization before the August 31st end of session.  Yet, now is not the time to declare this issue over – now is the time to begin the debate in earnest.  Senator Steinberg should be applauded for acknowledging this and for his leadership and commitment to urgently schedule an appropriate process where meaningful CEQA modernization legislation can be developed and adopted.  California’s economy, environment, and citizens deserve no less.