By Marisa Kendall and Julie Cart, CalMatters
CalMatters is a nonprofit, nonpartisan newsroom committed to explaining California policy and politics.
Dealing a blow to Gov. Gavin Newsom, Democratic legislators this week shot down his ambitious attempt to reform state environmental law and make it easier to build big infrastructure projects in California.
In a 3-0 vote on Thursday, a Senate budget committee found Newsom’s package was too complex for last-minute consideration under legislative deadlines. The cutoff for bills to pass out of their house of origin is June 2, just two weeks after the governor rolled out his proposal to adjust the landmark California Environmental Quality Act.
The 10 bills include measures to streamline water, transportation and clean energy projects with an eye toward helping the state meet its climate goals. The proposals also took aim at an environmental law commonly referred to by the acronym CEQA that critics have long decried as a tool to bog down housing and other projects.
The committee members – two Democrats and one Republican – said no, for now, even as they expressed support for Newsom’s overarching goal.
“The overwhelming agreement is that we need to build clean faster and cut green tape,” said Committee Chair Sen. Josh Becker, a Democrat from San Mateo. “That’s been a legislative priority for me and will continue to be a legislative priority. Although today we are rejecting the governor’s trailer bill proposals based on process, as seven days is insufficient to vet the hundreds of pages of policy nuance in these proposals, we look forward to working with the administration on all of these critical issues.”
That setback, served to Newsom by two Democratic allies, came just hours after the governor expressed confidence his package would prevail.
“I am proud of the Legislature on what we have achieved. I am confident that they will deliver on this,” he said, speaking during an event in Richmond intended to highlight the state’s renewable energy achievements.
That vote doesn’t mean Newsom’s infrastructure proposal is dead. His bills could return to Senate or Assembly committees in budget negotiations over the next few weeks. Or Newsom could instead re-introduce them through the Legislature’s policy committees, where they would go through a lengthier process of public comments, discussion and votes.
“The governor is committed to getting this proposal passed so California can maximize its share of federal infrastructure dollars and fast-track clean energy, transportation and water projects that deliver results for all Californians,” Daniel Villaseñor, deputy press secretary for the governor’s office, said in an emailed statement.
Gavin Newsom’s pitch for building big things
Newsom spoke plenty about his infrastructure legislation earlier in the day in Richmond, during an event that quickly morphed into an exhortation about the urgency of passing his proposal.
“Enough. We need to build, we need to get things done,” Newsom said. “This is not an ideological exercise. We don’t have time. We gotta go.”
Newsom said that streamlining legal review of clean energy projects is imperative if the state expects to reach its ambitious climate goals. Newsom cited a solar project that has taken 13 years to work its way through agency bureaucracy, a timeframe he called “absurd.”
His legislation proposed a fixed 270-day permitting process for some projects and 270 days for judicial reviews.
“If we don’t build, democracy is crushed,” Newsom said. “They say we can’t get things done anymore. We need to get moving and get ourselves out of the way.”
His package of bills would shorten the amount of time certain projects – namely water, transportation, clean energy and semiconductor or microelectronic projects – could spend in court. It also would have limited the amount of records parties involved in CEQA litigation would have to produce. Typically, preparing the required records for such lawsuits takes between four and 17 months, according to a document published with the bill.
Environmental groups against fast CEQA changes
But Newsom’s ideas to water down the state’s landmark environmental law immediately drew criticism from some environmental groups, including Sierra Club California and Restore the Delta.
Several groups also called into Thursday’s hearing to express their concerns.
“This is moving in the wrong direction for protections for the environment,” said Deirdre Des Jardins, director of California Water Research. “We urge the Senate to completely reject the governor’s proposed trailer bill language. Frankly, there was no reason to spring it on the legislature or the public so suddenly and at the end of the legislative session.”
In voting down Newsom’s infrastructure package, Becker made it clear that he was not against the governor’s goals. But he and the other committee members determined the bills should face additional review instead of speeding through the budget committee.
“I’ve been a long-time supporter of building clean faster, which not only means land siting and other permitting reform, but also supporting supply chains and costs for climate projects,” Becker said. “I agree with some of the proposals that have been outlined in the governor’s infrastructure package.”