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UPDATE: State environmental reforms quashed for the year

Posted: August 23, 2012 2:39 p.m.
Updated: August 23, 2012 4:48 p.m.
 

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — Legislative leaders said Thursday they have dropped plans to overhaul California's environmental regulations in a way that would have made it easier for developers and local governments to build new projects.

California's business community made a highly visible push this month to loosen the state's landmark law, known as the California Environmental Quality Act.

On Thursday Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg told a group of reporters that the effort would not go forward this year, despite legislative language introduced a day earlier.

"This law, for all of its strengths and its fault, is far too important to re-write in the last days of session," said Steinberg, D-Sacramento.

A proposal that would reform the law to reduce frivolous lawsuits and redundant oversight has been circulating in the Capitol for several weeks. Critics found an unlikely ally in Gov. Jerry Brown, who this week called streamlining the law's many requirements "the Lord's work."

On Wednesday, a bill by Sen. Michael Rubio was amended to include the four-point reform proposal. But on Thursday, Rubio was sanguine about the apparent change in plans.

"'The Lord's work' is not done overnight, nor is it done in two weeks," the Shafter democrat said.

Rubio and Steinberg called for a special legislative session to address the issue next year.

The Reagan-era law plays a key role in determining whether new projects go forward in California. It will also help decide the fate of two major Democratic priorities: the high-speed rail project and Delta water tunnel proposal.

Environmental groups have resisted efforts to change California's environmental regulations, which is among the strictest in the nation. They characterized the late-hour proposal as an attempt to avoid public scrutiny. A majority of the Assembly Democrats signed a pledge to oppose any related legislation that surfaced this year.

Republicans, by contrast, have been advocating for reform for years. They argue that the California's environmental regulation laws stifle development and provides an in for special interests to delay and shut down otherwise worthy projects.

On Thursday, Sen. Minority Leader Bob Huff, R-Diamond Bar, said lawmakers had lost an opportunity by postponing the discussion until next year.

"When's a good time?" he said. "The issues that are wrong are not new."

The announcement casts doubt on a high-profile effort by Assembly Speaker John Perez to close a corporate tax loophole to fund college scholarships.

The Los Angeles Democrat's bill squeaked out of the Assembly with a vote from a Republican whose support was contingent on environmental regulation reform passing this year. Now that lawmaker's support is in doubt.

"Regrettably, there are not going to be the reforms that I thought were necessary to improve business in California," said Assemblyman Brian Nestande, of Palm Desert.

If the Senate approves the bill, it would have to return to the Assembly for concurrence. Nestande said he does not believe the scholarship package will get the Republican votes it needs in the Senate, making his vote a moot point.

Closing the corporate tax loophole for the benefit of college students and their families has been a top priority for Perez. A spokesman for Perez said the speaker was confident that that the legislation will make it to the governor's desk, despite Republicans' disappointment with the lack of environmental reform.

"We feel very confident that we'll get the votes because the merits of the bill absolutely speak for themselves," Perez spokesman John Vigna said.

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