Is substantial CEQA reform possible or is it coming up short? The latest version of state Senate Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg’s SB 731 falls short of what should be the ultimate goal of any CEQA reform: stopping abusive CEQA lawsuits while preserving CEQA’s ability to protect the environment.

Last week, SB 731 advanced out of the Assembly Local Government Committee and, by the looks of it, the “elusive middle ground” that Sen. Steinberg seeks was very elusive in this bill. A coalition of business interests that includes the California Chamber of Commerce, the California Business Roundtable and the Silicon Valley Leadership Group have actually suggested that the current version of SB 731 is actually worse than the law as it stands, and could lead to more litigation, not less. The bill also fails to require forthright disclosure of the real interests behind CEQA lawsuits. The public and the courts have a right to know when there might be an ulterior motive behind a lawsuit brought on environmental grounds.

A recent editorial in the San Francisco Chronicle cited a couple of examples where CEQA lawsuits have been used to slow or stop environmentally friendly projects – the very type of projects CEQA is meant to encourage. For example, CEQA litigation led to a four-year legal battle against a San Francisco plan to add 34 miles of bike lanes. In downtown San Jose, a labor union used a CEQA lawsuit in an attempt to pressure the developers of a downtown high rise to not to use out of area subcontractors. These are just two of many examples of the abuse of CEQA.

Getting SB 731 and CEQA reform right is a tough balancing act. Everyone understands that trying to find a balance is sometimes a very hard thing to do. Fights like this, ADA reform and even Prop. 65 reform are not easy, but CALA hopes that even if reform cannot be accomplished in this session that all the parties would continue the discussions and work toward reform. If it does not come in the closing days of this session, maybe it will over the next few months.

The bottom line is that CEQA litigation is hurting California’s economy by allowing special interests to stall badly needed projects through abusive litigation, and CEQA needs to be reformed to end this abuse. Sen. Steinberg has been able to push through legal reform ADA lawsuits, through SB 1186 in 2012. We hope he can find the “elusive middle ground” on legal reform again with SB 731. California needs to create jobs, not more lawsuits.