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Editorial

A budget, but at what price?

Democrats aren't in a position to say no to everything the minority proposes. But Republicans have to be reasonable too, and the changes they're seeking in the California Environmental Quality Act don't pass that test.

March 17, 2011

The Republican lawmakers who have been negotiating a budget deal with Gov. Jerry Brown recently declared that the talks were stalling because Democrats were unwilling to make meaningful concessions. Given that they need at least a few GOP votes in each chamber to pass key parts of the budget package, Democrats aren't in a position to say no to everything the minority proposes. But Republicans have to be reasonable too, and the changes they're seeking in the California Environmental Quality Act don't pass that test.

The loose-knit group of Senate Republicans who've been talking privately to Brown have laid out several broad demands, including a firm spending cap and restructured pension benefits. Some of the issues they've raised are well worth exploring, but it's been hard to judge what they're seeking because so few details have been made public. The one exception is their proposal for weakening the California Environmental Quality Act, a draft of which was recently obtained by Times reporters Shane Goldmacher and Evan Halper.

That law, which is a vital piece of the state's efforts to protect the environment, requires local and state agencies to consider the effect that a proposed project would have on the environment before giving it the green light. But ever since CEQA was adopted in 1970, businesses and their allies in Sacramento have sought changes to reduce the uncertainty and delay it can cause.

The Republicans' draft bill would make it easier for a developer to avoid having to produce costly studies of a project's environmental impact, and would give far less weight to the effect of greenhouse gas emissions. It would bar anyone but the state attorney general from enforcing the act, eliminating the public's right to challenge a proposed development in court over its environmental impact. And it would exempt much more development within cities from the act, as well as infrastructure work by telephone companies trying to compete with cable operators for pay-TV customers.

Such sweeping changes need to be scrutinized in full public view, not in secret, down-to-the-wire budget talks. Though CEQA may lead to some abusive lawsuits that are motivated more by anti-competitive interests than environmental concerns, eliminating the public's right to enforce CEQA is far too drastic a solution. And the carve-out for telephone companies smells like a favor for a well-heeled special interest.

Brown has expressed sympathy for those who want to streamline CEQA, having seen the complex law's pros and cons up close as mayor of Oakland. If they really want to fix the act, not gut it, Republicans should extract a pledge from the governor to return to the Legislature by the end of the year with a CEQA reform proposal. The law is far from perfect, but the GOP proposal would be an abdication, not an improvement.

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