Setting a Hopeful Tone
Two major environmental victories in the November 2010 election set a hopeful tone for the 2011 legislative season. Proposition 23, which was brought to the ballot largely through out-of-state oil money, would have repealed California’s landmark climate change law, AB 32. Instead, Prop 23 (dubbed the “Dirty Energy Initiative”) suffered a crushing defeat, reaffirming Californians’ commitment to doing our part for the climate. Secondly, Jerry Brown was elected governor, nearly thirty years after his first two terms. Brown campaigned on a platform of experience, fiscal responsibility, and environmental protection; indeed, he holds the highest lifetime California Environmental Scorecard score (86%) of any governor since the beginning of his first term in 1975.
Buoyed by these victories, environmentalists refocused our efforts to ensure equitable and effective implementation of rules to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and to pass a slate of new laws to greatly increase renewable energy use and protect Californians from toxics in our water and consumer products.
Of course, California’s continued economic hardship and an enormous state budget deficit dominated any Capitol discussions. Consequently, CLCV worked to pass bills to provide economic solutions as well as environmental and public health benefits. As in recent years, CLCV and our environmental colleagues also played strong defense by defeating multiple assaults on our state’s flagship environmental laws and rulemaking process.
Tough Times Call for Innovative Solutions
Right from the beginning, the state’s budget crisis played a major role in determining our community’s priorities. Faced with inevitable budget cuts to state parks, conservationists sought creative ways to shore up the fiscally starved system. Other legislation would allow consumers and state and local governments to save money while fueling the state’s green jobs movement through stronger energy efficiency standards and increased access to recycling.
The strong nexus between environmental protection and public health and the associated costs to individuals and the state inspired a number of bills, including a successful campaign to elevate the need for safe, affordable drinking water in disadvantaged communities. Fortunately, a new governor who campaigned on a strong platform of environmental protection and progress, along with fresh advisors and appointments in key agencies, also offered better prospects to phase out toxics and wasteful products from our lives.
Despite these advantages, environmental advocates were mindful of the inevitable budget competition that would pit social services, education, and public safety needs against each other, as well as against environmental and natural resource protection programs. True to his campaign promise, Governor Brown focused his energy in the early months of this year on balancing the state budget. After unexpectedly vetoing the first budget sent to him by the legislature, Brown forced the legislative majority to make even deeper cuts before the constitutional deadline. Along with a wide variety of devastating casualties, funding for California’s crown jewels—the state parks—suffered further decimation: seventy parks are slated for closure due to $22 million in cuts to the general fund. Legislators worked for a partial solution to these cuts by delivering a bill allowing nonprofits to assist in the management and operation of state parks, which the governor signed.
These extreme budget pressures took a toll in other areas, including efforts to create new fees to backfill general fund dollars previously allocated for water pollution control, agricultural land conservation, and essential environmental services. Finally, Proposition 26, the 2010 voter-approved initiative, required a two-thirds vote for any new fees. This greatly limited the ability to fund existing environmental laws and to support any new rules.
Beating Back the Bad Bills
Using the struggling economy as an excuse to hammer away at environmental and public health protections, special interests and polluting industries continued to push the false choice of jobs versus the environment. Under a variety of organizational banners and the Green California network of more than 75 groups, the environmental community rallied together to protect landmark environmental laws threatened by a legislature seeking ways to respond to voter frustration and industry-fueled fear.
Passed in 1970, the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) is frequently referred to as California’s bedrock environmental law. It is a fundamental protection that allows everyday citizens to help protect our health, air, water, and other natural resources, while fostering transparent public decision-making in land use and other critical decisions. Starting early in 2011, legislators introduced a record number of bills attacking CEQA and other environmental protections. These ranged from blatant efforts at evisceration to more nuanced attempts to hamper rulemaking or reduce citizen access to due process. All told, lawmakers introduced 57 regulatory rollback bills that covered a wide spectrum of issues, including the addition of layers of red tape for new safeguards.
Due largely to the stellar work of organizational advocates, concerned constituents, and leaders of key legislative committees, most of these damaging bills were stopped. By the spring recess, most of the 27 anti-CEQA bills had stalled; by summer recess, only six significant regulatory rollbacks and eight CEQA bills were still alive.
By the last week of session, the remaining major regulatory bill—SB 617 (Calderon and Pavley) represented a more thoughtful approach to regulation than the plethora of reactionary bills that had been introduced earlier in the year. It was also amended to a point where most environmental groups were supportive or neutral. Ultimately, the bills to greatly weaken CEQA or undermine strong conservation policies were defeated by CLCV and our environmental allies.
Late in the session, much of the CEQA debate focused on efforts to provide incentives for renewable energy and transit-friendly “infill” or “green” projects within urban areas. Some of CLCV’s legislative champions offered bills to modify CEQA to address these issues.
After the summer recess, these remaining CEQA bills underwent a flurry of amendments at times so fast and extensive that it was difficult to track the changes. By midnight on the last night of session, a handful of these bills had moved with lightning speed through hearings and sent to the governor. Of these, the most significant measures were SB 292, AB 900, and SB 226.
After securing agreement for enhanced environmental performance and enforcement of terms for the construction of a downtown Los Angeles stadium, CLCV agreed to support SB 292. The bill expedites judicial review of any CEQA challenge to the project in exchange for significant amendments to strengthen mitigations and their enforceability. This included “best in the nation” traffic mitigations for the life of the stadium and stronger carbon neutrality provisions to promote job-creating carbon offsets in the region. Several loopholes were also removed from the legal review process. This measure, now signed into law, maintains CEQA’s full environmental review process and retains judicial review of challenges based on CEQA.
In the final days of the session, Senate leadership presented a more extensive companion measure to SB 292: AB 900. This new bill extended the benefits of a shorter judicial review process (offered in SB 292) to major renewable energy and other development projects valued over $100 million that met a set of enhanced environmental performance standards. Concerned about the range of projects eligible for expedited judicial review and by the limited time to thoroughly analyze this change to CEQA, the environmental community either opposed or remained neutral on AB 900.
The third major bill, SB 226 (Simitian), exempted the installation of rooftop and parking lot solar installations from CEQA review, provided clarification for solar energy systems permitting, directed the Office of Planning and Research (OPR) to establish guidelines for environmental review of infill developments, and provided some CEQA review flexibility for projects converting from solar thermal to solar photovoltaic technology. Some environmental groups opposed or remained neutral. CLCV supported the bill because it fully mitigated environmental impacts and advanced green, urban infill and renewable energy, essential to combat climate change.
As the legislative dust settles and we reflect on the losses and gains on the CEQA front, one thing is clear: Many legislators remain convinced of a need to modify CEQA to expedite job-inducing projects, whether the jobs materialize or not. Defense of this bedrock law will remain a priority in 2012.
New Champions and Allies
CLCV sought new champions in Sacramento to help broaden our base of support and to engage elected officials. We reached out to the Assembly freshman class and added three new legislators to work with us as “floor champions.” These champions, Luis Alejo, Roger Hernandez, and Ricardo Lara, worked with us to round up additional votes on crucial bills, to better understand their constituents’ values, and to better communicate our issues’ relevance to all Californians.
We also worked with freshman legislator Betsy Butler and public health advocates to pass a bill (AB 1319) to ban the toxic chemical bisphenol-A from baby bottles and sippy cups. Finally, our alliance with organized labor on bills such as the energy efficiency bill—SB 454 (Pavley)—was an encouraging sign of continued common ground with these groups.
Numbers alone are not sufficient to fully evaluate the 2011 legislative session; however, they effectively illustrate the year’s difficult political context. The biggest challenges for our priority bills came from the legislature. Some of the freshmen we helped elect in 2010—such as Assemblymembers Betsy Butler, Rich Gordon, and Michael Allen—came through with supportive votes on all of the 21 bills highlighted in the Scorecard. However, too many of our bills fell short of the crucial votes needed to reach the governor, often by only one or two votes. Of the 21 scored bills, only 12 garnered enough votes to pass to the governor’s desk. Once they reached Governor Brown, he signed 10 of the 12 bills into law.
Ultimately, our victories in increasing renewable energy use, improving air quality, protecting natural resources and water quality, protecting children from toxic chemicals, and reducing solid waste (just to name a few) bolster our work to strengthen California as the environmental leader for the rest of the nation.
What’s Next in 2012?
2012 will be a watershed election year. The perfect storm of redistricting, open primaries, and term limits will present more competitive races than California voters have seen in 20 years. The 2012 election and California’s legislative session will occur in a tough economy with a state budget facing serious challenges. Many candidates and legislators will make unsupported economic claims to undermine our environmental laws.
That’s why CLCV is committed to a 2012 electoral campaign to defend our current champions and elect the next generation of environmental champions. For over 40 years, California has led the nation, proving that a strong environment and a strong economy are inseparable. We will invest in those candidates who are committed to California’s continued leadership.
Back to the main 2011 California Environmental Scorecard page.