SACRAMENTO — Efforts to overhaul California’s landmark environmental law are expected to continue next year, with state lawmakers instead making limited changes as part of a bill that smooths the way for a new NBA arena in downtown Sacramento.
The bill from Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, would accelerate judicial review of any lawsuits filed against the proposed Sacramento Kings arena under the California Environmental Quality Act. It cleared the Assembly 55-6 on Thursday and returned to the Senate for a final vote.
SB743 was expanded late Wednesday to include portions of a broader bill Steinberg had proposed to overhaul the law, commonly known as CEQA. The changes would help some urban projects throughout the state.
Steinberg had worked with various groups throughout the year on comprehensive reforms to that law, but he was unable to reach agreement on a final proposal and announced Wednesday that work will continue next year.
“Business groups wanted the whole pie and made passage of (a broader bill) impossible,” Steinberg said. “So I’ve separated the wheat from the chaff, and put the major changes into another bill.”
The bill that is expected to be sent to the governor is intended to help the Kings replace their aging arena with a new one downtown, on the site of a shopping mall that has fallen on hard times. Easing the path for the arena was part of the pitch Sacramento made to the NBA earlier this year in its effort to keep the team from moving to Seattle.
Assemblyman Roger Dickinson, D-Sacramento, described the proposed arena as a “transformative” project for Sacramento, saying it would create 4,000 jobs.
Several Assembly Republicans expressed frustrations at singling out a particular project for legal exemptions. Assemblyman Brian Nestande of Palm Desert said lawmakers should instead work on making it easier for all projects to comply with environmental rules.
“This is unequal treatment under the law,” Nestande said. “We’re picking and choosing what projects we think are appropriate to be built.”
Assemblywoman Kristin Olsen, R-Modesto, said the pattern of bills providing exemptions for specific projects, such as a prior measure to help build an NFL stadium in Los Angeles, show that the environmental law isn’t working.
“At some point we have to come together as a body and fix this broken law,” Olsen said.
The CEQA Working Group, a coalition of business, housing and local government leaders leading the push for comprehensive reforms, issued a statement Thursday evening saying SB743 represents “only a very marginal improvement” and that the group will continue to seek changes.
“It is not the comprehensive reform that we need to support environmentally responsible job-inducing projects that our state needs,” said Gary Toebben, a co-chairman of the coalition group and president of the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce.
Gov. Jerry Brown also has sought to overhaul the state’s environmental statute, which was signed by former Gov. Ronald Reagan in 1970 and enacts some of the toughest environmental hurdles in the country.
Evan Westrup, spokesman for the Democratic governor, said Brown urged Steinberg to amend his arena proposal to include some statewide provisions.
Critics say the statute is used by unions, activist groups and rival developers to delay or stop projects they don’t like, often at great legal expense to developers. Opponents of revising the act argue that the law’s benefits outweigh the number of times it has been used for frivolous lawsuits.