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Deep reforms to environmental law prove difficult
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SACRAMENTO  (AP) — At the beginning of this year's legislative session, Gov. Jerry Brown, the state Senate's top Democrat and key business groups joined in a call to overhaul California's landmark environmental-protection law.

But by the session's close, plans for broad-based reforms to the California Environmental Quality Act, which critics say is prone to frivolous lawsuits based on non-environmental concerns, had been scuttled. Instead, the Legislature included limited changes in a bill that primarily will aid the construction of a new NBA arena in downtown Sacramento.

The changes included in the bill that is now before the governor include provisions to prevent legal challenges to urban projects based on aesthetics or parking requirements and a requirement that state officials revise how traffic effects are assessed and resolved. Yet they fall far short of the more comprehensive reforms sought by a variety of interests.

The failure to enact broader reforms is largely a sign of the political reality in a state that is dominated by Democrats who receive significant support from special interest groups that don't want the law changed. In this case, the changes were fought primarily by environmental groups and unions, which have used its various provisions to file lawsuits as a way to stop or delay projects they don't like.

At the same time, business groups held to their goal of seeking deeper changes. The CEQA Working Group, a coalition of business, housing and local government leaders leading the push for comprehensive reforms, said its members were disappointed with the outcome and will seek further reforms to the law in the future.

"It was not threading the needle or finding a middle ground," Carl Guardino, president and chief executive of the Silicon Valley Leadership Group and a co-chairman of the CEQA Working Group, said of the statewide reforms that ultimately passed the Legislature. "It was a major disappointment in the product as well as the process."

Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, defended the final bill's provisions and said they represented substantial changes.

He told reporters after his arena bill passed that it "incorporates the most significant portions" of a previous bill that sought additional changes. He had repeatedly amended that bill, SB731, throughout this year's legislative session in an effort to find consensus among business, environmental and labor groups.

"In my opinion, we essentially got 731, but it's now in a different bill," Steinberg said. "Sometimes the process works magic and sometimes you help the process create magic."

His spokesman, Rhys Williams, said this week that the senator believes the changes will make the environmental law work better and that he is unlikely to pursue the issue again next year.

This was the second year in a row that efforts to overhaul the California Environmental Quality Act fizzled as the legislative session was ending. Steinberg postponed a late push for reforms last fall, saying the statute is too important to re-write in the final days of the legislative session.

CEQA was signed into law by former Gov. Ronald Reagan in 1970, at the height of the environmental movement. It has since been widely recognized as one of the toughest environmental-protection measures in the country but also one that has stymied reasonable development because it allows opposition groups so many avenues to file lawsuits.

Critics include Brown, a Democrat and former mayor of Oakland who has called reforming the law "the Lord's work." He called for changes that would provide greater certainty for developers and reduce "needless delays."

A wide spectrum of critics say the law has invited abuse, allowing environmentalists an avenue to indefinitely delay projects they don't like, giving unions an opportunity to halt projects if they will be built with non-union workers and even providing developers a way to stymie projects that compete with their own.

At the start of the year, former state Sen. Michael Rubio, a moderate Democrat from Bakersfield, was expected to lead the reform effort as chairman of the Senate Environmental Quality Committee. His surprise resignation from the Legislature in February to take a political job with Chevron appeared to weaken the effort, at least temporarily, although it's not clear how well he would have fared had he remained in office.

Rubio did not respond to a voicemail message seeking comment.

Steinberg then took the lead, trying to navigate between highly polarized interest groups.

Labor groups and environmentalists acknowledge the criticism that the law has been misused but say its benefits outweigh the number of times it has been used for inappropriate lawsuits.

Both sides expressed frustrations with the final legislative product. Environmentalists blasted the arena bill as yet another exemption for a specific project, while groups that sought reforms dismissed the changes contained in Steinberg's bill as marginal improvements, at best.

The CEQA Working Group had been supportive of Steinberg's efforts through much of the year but began criticizing it in late July, saying it would increase the opportunities for lawsuits instead of reducing them. Guardino, the group's co-chairman, said it had been clear about the necessary reforms and that meaningful negotiations never developed.

In a statement released as the arena bill was clearing its final floor votes, Steinberg explained his decision to pursue an expanded version of that bill instead of his broader measure. In it, he described resistance from business groups that he said "wanted the whole pie."

His office denies that the coalition group was excluded from the process and points to support from another business group, the Council of Infill Builders. Those developers wrote to Steinberg in support of his changes to how traffic effects will be analyzed, saying the change "has the potential to significantly improve development patterns, traffic and air pollution in California."

Guardino said this year's debates shed light on some real problems with the statute and that his group will continue to seek changes.

"We're not going to let up, and we're not going to go away," he said. "This is a political-will issue."