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Coalition forms to defend environmental law
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SACRAMENTO (AP) — Labor and environmental groups on Tuesday joined some of the more liberal Democrats in the state Legislature in announcing a coalition to oppose reforms sought by Gov. Jerry Brown to the California Environmental Quality Act.

Overhauling the law to prevent abuse is one of the governor's top priorities this year, but opponents say the act has served a vital role in protecting the state's air and water over its four-decade history.

Signed into law by then-Gov. Ronald Reagan in 1970, the law requires public agencies to weigh the potential environmental effects of proposed development.

Critics say it has drifted from that purpose, instead being used to delay projects, seek labor concessions and undermine competing developers.

Common Ground, the new coalition group opposing reforms, commissioned a report as part of its effort to emphasize the importance of the law.

The study by Peter Philips, a University of Utah economics professor, points to the state's record in building alternative-energy projects and maintaining construction jobs as evidence that the law is working.

"Has CEQA actually hindered construction? Far from it," said Bob Balgenorth, chairman of the California Construction Industry Labor Management Cooperation Trust. "If anything, it's facilitated greater construction, a cleaner environment and a better quality of life for Californians."

Brown and the Legislature's Democratic leaders are negotiating changes after an attempt to pass a bill failed last year.

The governor's office had no comment on the report, but Brown has advocated for more consistent standards in reviewing development projects.

A separate coalition of business, labor and government organizations supports changes to the law that would make it easier to build.

Republican Sen. Tom Berryhill of Stanislaus has re-introduced a proposal for streamlining the review process that was pushed last year by former Sen. Michael Rubio, D-Bakersfield.

The reform effort was led by Rubio until he resigned last month to take a job with Chevron.

Opponents of revising the environmental act acknowledged criticism that the law has been misused by those seeking to block projects for non-environmental reasons. But they argued that the law's benefits outweigh the number of times it has been used for frivolous lawsuits.

"The question for us today as policymakers and advocates is, is this claimed abuse enough to give away the next generation's clean air and clean water and the next generation's agricultural lands and open spaces and wild places?" said Sen. Noreen Evans, D-Santa Rosa. "We must not confuse private profit with public good."