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GOP lawmakers threaten to withhold votes unless environmental rules are rewritten

Five Republicans whose votes are crucial to passage of Gov. Jerry Brown's spending proposal demand sweeping changes in the California Environmental Quality Act. Environmentalists are outraged.

March 16, 2011|By Shane Goldmacher and Evan Halper, Los Angeles Times

The handful of Republican lawmakers most likely to provide crucial votes for Gov. Jerry Brown's budget plan are threatening to withhold their support without a dramatic rewriting of state environmental law.

The demand, pushed in private talks with the governor, would curtail lawsuits against projects threatening ecological damage, grant waivers to big telecommunications companies and exempt many urban developments from environmental review.

The legislators have declined to share the details of their proposal publicly, but draft legislation to overhaul the law was obtained by The Times.

Sweeping changes in the California Environmental Quality Act would stand little chance of approval through the normal legislative process, which Democrats — environmentalists' usual allies — control. But the governor's budget cannot pass without some Republican votes, and GOP lawmakers see an opportunity to win long-sought concessions.

Environmentalists expressed outrage at the Republicans' bid. Bill Magavern, director of Sierra Club California, said that what the legislators want amounts to a "wholesale gutting" of the law.

"They're using the state's fiscal crisis as leverage to try to reward the big developers," he said. The proposal "would freeze communities out of the planning process."

The proposal was presented to the governor and legislative leaders by five Republican senators considered key to any budget deal with Brown, as they are the only GOP senators actively negotiating. The lawmakers are also pushing to reduce pensions for government workers, place stricter limits on state spending and overhaul the state tax code.

Brown is also talking with some Republicans in the Assembly, where he needs support as well. Most Republicans in the Legislature, however, oppose the Brown plan because it would ask voters to extend some taxes due to expire July 1.

The five lawmakers say activists are overstating the potential impact of the environment proposal. They say their goal is to stop frivolous lawsuits that can tie up projects.

"We wanted to streamline so there could not be as many levels of lawsuits," said Sen. Bill Emmerson (R-Hemet).

The proposal was written by legislative attorneys at the request of Sen. Anthony Cannella (R-Ceres), who is negotiating with Brown alongside Emmerson, Sen. Tom Berryhill (R-Modesto), Sen. Sam Blakeslee (R-San Luis Obispo) and Sen. Tom Harman (R-Huntington Beach). The lawmakers would speak only generally about the proposal, declining to discuss the details that most concern environmentalists.

"It's evolving," Berryhill said.

The proposal would sharply limit Californians' ability to go to court to challenge a construction project's environmental impact report — a document critical to final approval. The state attorney general would still be able to file such lawsuits.

Citizens would keep limited rights to file litigation, but only by making a deposit to the court of $50,000, or 1% of a construction project's costs if that amount is smaller.

Telecommunications companies seeking to expand their broadband networks would receive exemptions from environmental rules for related construction. Such a change would be a boon to firms like AT&T, which has contributed a total of $38,100 in campaign money to the five Republican senators since 2009.

AT&T spokesman Lane Kasselman declined to say whether AT&T was involved in drafting the legislation.

"AT&T supports any effort that increases access to broadband, grows investment and means jobs for Californians," Kasselman said in a statement. "We look forward to working with the Legislature to accelerate this vital infrastructure."

The GOP proposal also would broaden the kinds of projects allowed to skip certain steps in the environmental review process. Currently, such fast-tracking is generally reserved for residential construction in dense urban areas. Environmental activists say the proposed change would exempt nearly all urban and suburban development from rigorous review.

The plan also would ease some restrictions relating to greenhouse gas emissions caused by development.

Cannella said in a statement that the proposed changes would help generate jobs.

"Unemployment is higher than 20% in some parts of my district; too many of our neighbors are out of work," the statement said. "We have to do everything in our power to give job creators the freedom to hire workers and get Californians back to work.

"The goal is to eliminate abuse of our state's environmental regulations by trial attorneys and other special-interest groups, while also protecting California's natural resources and creating jobs."

Brown, who agreed with Republicans to keep the content of negotiations confidential, declined to comment on the environmental demands. Votes on his budget plan are scheduled in the Legislature on Wednesday, but that proposal does not include the changes sought by the five GOP lawmakers and is expected to fall short of approval.

"Essentially, none of these proposals get our budget under control," said Shannon Murphy, a spokeswoman for Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez (D-Los Angeles). "And they roll back some significant ground-breaking policies."

Environmentalists said no significant changes to the California Environmental Quality Act should be undertaken without a full public vetting.

The group of five Republicans "should have the integrity to debate it through the legislative process, not in secret behind closed doors," said Warner Chabot, chief executive of the California League of Conservation Voters. "Every poll that has been done in the last two decades in California shows the public supports stronger, not weaker, environmental laws."

shane.goldmacher@latimes.com

evan.halper@latimes.com

Times staff writer Michael J. Mishak contributed to this report.

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