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Jobs at any price?

The recession is no excuse for attempted end runs around state regulations and recycled bad bills.

February 28, 2010

Lawmakers insisted that it was a one-time thing, a special law for a special circumstance that would never be repeated. How often, after all, does the opportunity come along to fast-track a football stadium, especially when it is being built in the City of Industry by a wealthy guy like Ed Roski Jr., who knows his way around the Capitol and is a frequent political donor? Just this once, lawmakers said, they would sweep away a few nonessential items that surely no one would miss. Things like, say, state land-use law, environmental regulation and, what the heck, judicial review.

Last year's stadium bill was an echo of a measure that very nearly got past Inglewood voters five years earlier, when Wal-Mart wanted to build a new store but didn't want to bother with annoyances such as traffic reviews, environmental studies, zoning law or public hearings. Then, as now, a company promised a struggling city that it would bring hundreds of badly needed jobs -- if only it were given a free pass on community laws and standards with which everyone else must comply. The monumental exercise in chutzpah ultimately was defeated, more by a labor campaign motivated by Wal-Mart's anti-union tactics than by citizens who didn't realize they were being asked to blow a giant hole in their laws for the benefit of one wealthy company.

But the City of Industry stadium measure was even more shocking, because it exempted the project not merely from local land-use laws but from court review under the California Environmental Quality Act, known as CEQA. And it passed. AB 81XXX -- the triple X indicates that it was introduced in the state's third extraordinary legislative session, but feel free to think of it as a signal of its obscenity -- was signed into law by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who applauded it as a one-time job creator.

You can guess the rest of the story. This year, the governor proposed protecting 20 such developments from administrative and court review because, after all, they would bring jobs. Then the 20 became 25, and then finally 25 exemptions every year for five years. That means wiping out neighbors' and communities' opportunity to challenge a whopping 125 projects that would affect their streets, their air, their parks and their schools. The governor, through an appointee, would get to choose which projects get the free pass. Imagine how much a company would donate, and to whom, to get such special treatment. Imagine what would happen to developers who fail to budget enough for political schmoozing.

California suffers from 12% unemployment and is in dire need of good jobs. Permanent work would be nice, but so would construction jobs to reemploy thousands of workers idled by the housing bust. The state's power to restart the economy may be limited, but Schwarzenegger was on point in his January State of the State address, in which he focused on creating jobs, and he is right to seek bipartisan support for a jobs package now, in order to show potential investors that the state is getting its act together.

But beware of bills that use the promise of jobs and economic stimulus to mask boondoggles for private companies and to undermine hard-won and carefully crafted community, environmental and labor standards.

Schwarzenegger criticized Democrats last week for supposedly killing bills that he and Republican lawmakers say will put Californians back to work, including his proposal to award spot CEQA waivers. But many of the stimulus bills are simply retreads that have been reintroduced almost annually on behalf of business interests that opposed California's standards even when the economy was booming and unemployment was low.

For example, SBX8 70 and SBX8 66 (thankfully, some wise person in Sacramento decided against labeling bills in the eighth extraordinary session with an octuple X) would have given employers the relief from eight-hour workday and rest-break requirements that they have sought for years. Some work-rule flexibility may in fact be in order, but GOP lawmakers should not pretend that these are new measures, put forward in response to the economic crisis and supported by workers. The same goes for Republican bills to limit the ability of workers to sue their employers for workplace violations and consumers to sue merchants for faulty products. A bill to halt implementation of the landmark AB 32 law to regulate carbon emissions similarly has more to do with ideological differences with Californians' desire to protect the environment than with short-term job growth.

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