Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Environmental regulation as straw-man, & the end of our tripartite government

© 2010 Joshua Stark

Yesterday, my Governor outlined his goals for the year. All the normal political statements were dragged out: to get our state out of our horrible economic conditions, to focus on education and reform our prison system, etc. But, I am now immune to the talk; I wanted to see the action.
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On that note, here is one action that stands out for this blog. The Governor has proposed, and it is now a bill (AB 1111, authored by Sam Blakeslee) moving through the State Legislature, that 20 private projects in the State be exempted from California's environmental and public oversight law, The California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA, pronounced "SEE-kwa"). Specifically, the idea is for the Bureau of Transportation and Housing to pick 20 individual projects and declare their approval immune from judicial review. You can read the Governor's handout on the idea here (you need a .pdf reader).

I have four major problems with this bill, to be clear:
1) It weakens and obscures a regulation that has been instrumental in providing Californians a clear, open process for commenting on and fighting construction and planning that may impact them;
2) It has absolutely nothing to do with jobs;
3) It doesn't come close to passing the fairness test of good governance;
4) It abolishes our tripartite government.

Recently, I mentioned in passing about CEQA being something beyond a mere "environmental" regulation, and this is an idea that needs to get some media. Beyond the obvious benefits to our environment, CEQA has had two major, unintended and positive consequences for California: First, it codified an open, conspicuous and transparent process for Californians to comment on and defend their interests when threatened from activities that would impact them; and second, in improving environmental impacts, it improved our land, which in turn improved our standards of living, and the desire for folks to move here ("folks" includes businesses and individuals). I'm willing to bet that CEQA raises real estate values in the medium and long term.

Don't believe for a second that this is a jobs bill. California's economy has done just fine during good economic times with environmental regulations in place. The biggest drags on an economy are uncertainty about the future, and this bill brings all kinds of uncertainty: who will be exempted? Who will have to abide by the law? If company x gets a pass, why can't I? This uncertainty will surely slow up proposed projects who may not otherwise have CEQA troubles, because they might have to compete with projects who don't have to play by the rules. Other companies might think that waiting until they get their turn instead of moving forward on project ideas. What a mess! This bill's impact on "jobs" is a joke.

This uncertainty arises because the bill flies in the face of consistent, equitable government. Governments of laws and not men must abide by being equitable. The legal term for the opposite of this is "arbitrary and capricious", and though the reasons for the exemptions may be spelled out, it's a bad road to go down when you exempt private citizens from laws while binding others to them.

The last concern is a serious concern when taken in the context of our current state government. California is walking dangerously close to being ungovernable, and when we play favorites by exempting some private businesses from the law, we step closer to that boundary; but, when we do so by allowing the legislature and executive branches to declare certain citizens untouchable by the third & coequal branch of government, we actually move away from our constitutional form of government.

Our rabid public environment concerning jobs and debt and the economy is clouding our good judgment as a people, and this bill is one prime example of what might happen if we allow that environment to ruin our government, our progress, and the future of our state.

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