There's a thriving perennial in the garden of last-minute legislation: the special CEQA exemption for sports venues.
Los Angeles twice secured special treatment for proposed NFL stadiums. The 49ers got an exemption for their new stadium in Santa Clara. This year's request comes from Sacramento, which is planning a new arena for its NBA team.
Those bills, and others like them, show that CEQA is ripe for reform. Rather than carving out special exemptions, lawmakers ought to craft a statewide solution.
CEQA, the California Environmental Quality Act, requires assessments of potential environmental impacts for public and private projects and, wherever possible, mitigation of those impacts. The law, enacted in 1970, serves a noble purpose. But it's routinely abused.
Labor unions use CEQA to extract concessions, NIMBYs keep anything new out of their backyards, businesses thwart competition. Environmental impacts are little more than window-dressing for these lawsuits.
After a last-minute rush failed to produce results last year, Senate President Darrell Steinberg and other legislative leaders promised to address CEQA in 2013.
For the most part, however, they retraced the path that led to a roadblock last year. Instead of taking the spring and summer and using the public forum of legislative committees for a comprehensive look at CEQA's shortcomings and possible solutions, most of the action has taken place behind closed doors. And, yet again, legislators have waited until the last minute to try to close the deal.
Steinberg is pushing a CEQA reform bill. But it's scope is narrow — focusing on transit-friendly development sites — and the restrictions on legal challenges are limited to parking and aesthetics, leaving the door open for "greenmail" — the threat of a lawsuit to secure project labor agreements or other concessions.
Amendments are still possible, but with just three days remaining before the Legislature adjourns for the year, there isn't time for a thorough — or even perfunctory — public vetting of any last-minute changes.
That may be why Steinberg is pushing a separate bill to grant CEQA exemptions for the arena in Sacramento, where he once served on the City Council.
Steinberg's bill would make it harder for arena opponents to delay the arena project with lawsuits. It also would allow Sacramento to pursue eminent domain proceedings at the same time as its environmental impact report.
That second provision seems risky. If an EIR results in relocation or rejection of the arena, a lot of money could be spent and a lot of lives and businesses upended for nothing.
But the first objective of Steinberg's legislation — ensuring that courts aren't used as a tool to delay the arena — gets at the heart of statewide concerns about CEQA abuse. Why is it being addressed on a case-by-case basis for sports venues?
A year ago, we said this: "California would benefit from an examination of the strengths and flaws of CEQA, with an eye toward providing environmental protection for residents and avoiding time-consuming litigation that discourages people seeking to start or expand businesses in California."
It's still true, and we're still waiting.