Edmund G. “Pat” Brown was the best governor California has ever had, many would argue. Free-market economist Art Laffer says Pat’s son Jerry was “one of the best.” Still others would name Earl Warren as the greatest. New Gov. Gavin Newsom would surpass them all, though, if he would complete just one task.
Pat Brown was governor from 1959 to 1967 and presided over an extraordinary boom, in which the state laid down more than 1,000 miles of freeways, expanded the state university system, and built “the biggest waterworks the world had ever seen,” according to E&E News.
Eight years after Pat left office, Jerry arrived. His first two terms, says Laffer, who advised Ronald Reagan, were highlighted by solid economic policy.
“He did a great job implementing Proposition 13. He indexed personal income tax in the state; put in Gann spending limit under his tenure; and killed the estate tax,” Laffer said in 2010, about two months before Brown started his third term.
It’s possible California’s greatest governor is sitting in office right now, so new that he might not have yet decided which way he wants his desk to face. Newsom could outshine the Browns and every other chief executive in state history by guiding a top-to-bottom overhaul of the California Environmental Quality Act, also known as CEQA.
It would be no small task. CEQA has for good reason been called the “third rail of California politics.” As environmental lawyer Sarah Owsowitz pointed out in PublicCEO, “all who touch it . . . leave with singed hands and the conviction that they did not get what they wanted and maybe even came off a little worse than when they started.”
Passed and signed in 1970 by then-Gov. Reagan, CEQA was groundbreaking environmental-protection policy. But laws tend to carry unintended consequences and there’s no better example of that than CEQA, which has been the high-octane fuel driving California’s housing crisis.
Timothy L. Coyle, who, as director of the California Department of Housing and Community Development under Gov. Pete Wilson, has seen first-hand the ruinous effects of CEQA, says that “for new housing,” the law “is more than a barrier to construction.”
“It’s a menace,” and is in fact “the mother of all government-sponsored obstacles to development.”
Jennifer Hernandez, another environmental lawyer, says “housing remains the top target of CEQA lawsuits.” Don’t suppose the legal challenges are always battles between the green lobby and developers. CEQA is often used as an effective bludgeon by groups that have little or no interest in its environmental provisions but invoke the law because it allows them to conceal their true agendas.
“CEQA litigation abuse is primarily the domain of Not In My Backyard (NIMBY) opponents and special interests such as competitors and labor unions seeking non-environmental outcomes,” says Holland & Knight.
New housing is being held up in Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley for just this reason. A developer planning to convert a closed Montgomery Ward store in Panorama City into a mixed-use site that would include more than 600 new apartments is being held hostage by unions trying shut down the project through CEQA complaints. This is an all-too-common practice employed by labor bosses who want to force developers to use their union workers. That this is allowed to freely happen in a state that needs to build at least 100,000 more housing units a year than it presently does and where housing is unaffordable to so many, is an outrage.
During his last turn in the governor’s suite, Jerry Brown declared passing CEQA reform to be “the Lord’s work. Now Newsom occupies that space, and he’s saying “we are past the point of absurdity with some of the (CEQA) abuses we are seeing.” In the rollout of his first state budget, he called for CEQA reform to build new homeless shelters. But more than reform is needed. A complete rewrite is required.
Newsom could do worse than borrow an idea from his GOP opponent John Cox, who said if elected he would call a special session of the legislature to change the law. Doubters will say he’d never get anywhere, that it’s an impossible task, CEQA’s political roots are too deep and strong. But don’t dismiss the resolve of a politician who aims to have his portrait hung in the hall of greats. Newsom’s would be the most prominent if he led a successful CEQA makeover and supercharged California’s next home-building boom.