Dealing a blow to Gov. Gavin Newsom, Democratic lawmakers on Thursday rejected his ambitious bid to overhaul state environmental law and make it easier to build large infrastructure projects in California.
In a 3-0 vote, a Senate budget committee found Newsom’s package too complex for last-minute consideration within legislative deadlines. The deadline for the bills to pass in his hometown is June 2, just two weeks after the governor introduced his proposal to adjust California’s landmark Environmental Quality Act.
The 10 bills included measures to streamline clean energy, transportation and water projects to help the state meet its climate goals. The proposals also took aim at an environmental law commonly known by the acronym CEQA that critics have long denounced as a tool to bog down housing and other projects.
But the committee members, two Democrats and one Republican, said no.
“The overwhelming agreement is that we need to build clean faster and cut green bureaucracy,” said committee chairman Sen. Josh Becker, D-San Mateo. “That has been a legislative priority for me and will continue to be a legislative priority. Although we are rejecting the Governor’s process-based breakthrough bills today, as seven days is insufficient time to sift through the hundreds of pages of policy nuance in these proposals, we look forward to working with the administration on all of these critical issues.”
Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Santa Rosa, and Sen. Brian Dahle, R-Redding, also voted no.
That setback, served to Newsom by two Democratic allies, came just hours after the governor expressed confidence that his package would prevail.
“I am proud of the Legislature for what we have accomplished. I am confident that they will deliver on this,” he said, speaking during an event in Richmond on Thursday aimed at highlighting the state’s renewable energy achievements.
That vote doesn’t mean Newsom’s infrastructure proposal is dead. His bills could return to the Senate or Assembly budget committees as draft bills. Or, instead, Newsom could resubmit them through the Legislature’s policy committees, where they would go through a longer process of public comment, debate and voting.
“The Governor is committed to getting this proposition passed so California can maximize its share of federal infrastructure dollars and accelerate clean energy, transportation and water projects that deliver results for all Californians,” said Daniel Villaseñor, Deputy Press Secretary. from the governor’s office. he said in an emailed statement.
Gavin Newsom’s argument for building great things
But Newsom talked a lot about his infrastructure legislation earlier that day in Richmond, during an event that quickly turned 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 have to go.”
Newsom said that simplifying the legal review of clean energy projects is imperative if the state hopes to meet its ambitious climate goals. Newsom cited a solar project that took 13 years to work its way through the agency’s bureaucracy, a timeframe he called “absurd.”
Its legislation proposed a flat permitting process of 270 days for some projects and 270 days for judicial reviews.
“If we don’t build, democracy gets crushed,” Newsom said. “They say that we can no longer do things. We have to move and get 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 would also have limited the number of records that the parties involved in the CEQA litigation would have to produce. Typically, preparing the records required for such lawsuits takes between four and 17 months, according to a document released with the bill.
Environmental Groups Against Rapid CEQA Changes
But Newsom’s ideas to water down the state’s landmark environmental law immediately drew criticism from some environmental groups, including the Sierra Club California and Restore the Delta.
Several groups also called Thursday’s hearing to express their concerns.
“This is moving in the wrong direction for environmental protection,” said Deirdre Des Jardins, director of California Water Research. “We urge the Senate to completely reject the language of the Governor’s proposed trailer bill. Frankly, there was no reason to release it to the legislature or to the public so suddenly and at the end of the legislative session.”
By rejecting 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 that the bills should face additional review rather than rush through the budget committee.
“I have long supported building cleaner faster, which means not only land location and other permitting reforms, but also supporting supply chains and climate project costs,” Becker said. “I agree with some of the proposals that have been outlined in the governor’s infrastructure package.”
CalMatters.org is a non-profit, non-partisan media company that explains California policies and politics.