Crossposted on CalWatchDog

In Archibald MacLeish’s 1958 play “J.B.,” the devil disguised as a popcorn vendor destroys the property and children of a wealthy banker named “J.B.” to test his faithfulness to God.  God, portrayed as a balloon vendor in a circus, offers to restore J.B.’s life if he returns to the religion he rejected. J.B. selects a different path and is content with his choice.  “J.B.” is a modern version of the Biblical story of Job: hence the title “J.B.”

SEQA – Selective Environmental Quality Act

In the present day version of this morality play California Governor Jerry Brown playing the role of “J.B.,” is trying to disguise his deal with the devil for replacement of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) with what might be called the “Selective Environmental Quality Act” (SEQA).  The governor in consort with the legislature – or the devil — will pick pet projects and pet constituencies for exemption from California’s laws.  Brown will play god and pick and choose which public projects will be subject to the state’s environmental laws.

Many newspapers have reported that Brown has already cut a deal to get corporations to fund a $1 billion tax increase for college scholarships for undocumented college students in return for exempting certain pet projects from the requirements of California’s Environmental Quality Act.  It’s a deal made in heaven, or maybe made in the political underworld where “outsiders rarely know all the games insiders play.”

CEQA Reform is “God’s Work”

In Act Two of the play Gov. Brown has declared that reforming CEQA is “the Lord’s work.”  But Brown already passed a set of so-called CEQA reforms back on Sept. 27, 2011, under Assembly Bill 900 (“Streamlining Bill”) and Senate Bill 292 (Los Angeles Football Stadium Exemption).  What makes this new proposed CEQA Reform necessary?

What Brown appears to be signaling is that CEQA is up for sale to the highest bidder in return for highly symbolic taxes that buy votes of pet political constituencies for the upcoming election in November.  So what California is likely to end up getting in return is an exemption for Brown’s pet Bullet Train project from environmental laws.

Now most Californians are mature enough to understand what is going on and to look the other way if the greater public good is served.  Famous liberal Christian theologian Reinhold Niebuhr called this ethical “realism” or realpolitik.  We must get our hands dirty to do any good.  OK.  So what good will come of this deal?

Selling Their Soul for Mess of Pottage?

Many Californians will probably ask what good may come from fast tracking the proverbial Bullet Train to nowhere?  And what good will come if funding is pulled by Congress for the Bullet Train if a new administration is installed in Washington, D.C., in two months?  And what will these scholarships go for?  More needed trained engineers to create needed new industries and jobs or more “pet” college programs and projects to nowhere for more “pet” political constituencies?  Where is the economic dividend in this deal?

The state unemployment fund is running in the red to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars, Med-Cal and Cal-WORKS are running up the state budget deficit, and California only has six months of water storage even without a drought.  And highly selective CEQA reform is what the governor and the legislature are preoccupied with?

Isn’t what Gov. Brown is doing with CEQA exemptions the same as Pres. Obama did with all the waivers for Obamacare mainly granted to political contributors?  Laws that need so many waivers for political cronies aren’t good laws that serve the greater public interest. They are laws meant to punish one political group in favor of another. What kind of political system do we call that which punishes one’s political enemies?

Have corporations proverbially sold their soul for a “mess of pottage” in Biblical terms by ponying up $1 billion for college scholarships?

Government is not rational or even just; it is a messy process of “muddling through” as political scientist Charles Lindblom once famously said. But what will be the consequence of such capricious law?  Has California democracy and the rule of law been abrogated?

In MacLeish’s play the wife of fictional character “J.B.” says:

“You wanted justice, didn’t you?  There isn’t any…there is only love.”

Former California Attorney General now Gov. Jerry Brown apparently believes California law and justice can be based on “love:” on the dispensing of grace in the form of a free ride through college.  In his prior two terms as governor, Brown was known by judges and criminal prosecutors for his ideological and permissive judiciary appointments that gave many criminals lenient sentences.

On Thursday Aug. 23, the state Senate held off approving Brown’s CEQA reforms until the environmental lobby could be appeased and the state’s environmental laws won’t be totally scuttled.  For the most part CEQA is a way for third parties to shake down farmers and industries for water rights, land or real estate development under the guise of environmental mitigation damages.

Californians want the rule of law without political favor and for the greater public good.  Whether what California ends up getting with Gov. Brown’s CEQA reform deal is for the greater public good is each voter’s decision at the ballot box in November.

The analogy of Jerry Brown to the Biblical character of Job may be seen as inappropriate.   That is because, unlike Job, Brown’s deal with the devil will cause the house to fall on everybody else but him.  But in Archibald MacLeish’s story, the fictional character of “J.B.” refuses to return to his faith and is content with his losses.  Brown doesn’t suffer like Job or stoically resign himself to his situation like “J.B.”   Rather, Brown, as usual, will simply move on to his next special interest giveaway while describing himself as the god-like ancient Greek ruler Aristides the Just.