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Last year in the final stretch of the legislative session, the Anschutz Entertainment Group (AEG) tried to push for a legislative exemption from the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) for the proposed building of a football stadium in Los Angeles next to the Staples Center. Ultimately, when the gavel came down on August 31st, the CEQA exemption was not granted; or any other significant attempt to weaken California’s premier environmental law.

Now, less than a month since the legislature reconvened for this year’s session, AEG is picking up right where they left off. On Wednesday, AEG President and CEO Tim Leiweke gave a public presentation to the L.A. City Council regarding his company’s plans for a downtown stadium. In this meeting, Leiweke brought up the issue of “protection” for the stadium deal, suggesting that AEG will likely seek legislation to protect the stadium from legal challenges brought forth which is often encountered during the environmental review process. Leiweke asked that his project receive the same “CEQA protections granted to the City of Industry,” a competing southern California town also aiming to lure a football team to move with promises of a new stadium.

In 2009, the legislature voted and passed a bill granting the 75,000 seat stadium project by Majestic Realty Co. a CEQA exemption. This has set a bad precedent for those hoping to preserve CEQA and protect it from attempts to weaken our communities’ only defense against detrimental projects. When asked to comment on the proposed Los Angeles stadium, a spokesperson from Majestic Realty responded, “AEG is requesting an environmental waiver for the single largest development ever proposed in the City of Los Angeles, that is unacceptable.”  Well, that is something we can both agree on.

At midnight September 1st the gavel came down and the 2009-2010 legislative session came to a close.  While not all bills had the outcome we would have liked, we can happily say that thanks to the hard work of community groups around the state, we have made it through the year without a single bill exempting a project from the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) from passing.  This is a huge victory that could not have been achieved without the effort of a coalition over 150 (and growing!) environmental and justice groups, housing advocates, businesses and community leaders. 

Our last triumph came only hours before the legislature adjourned, when Assembly Bill 1581 (Torres) was sent to the inactive file thanks to a motion by Senator Romero.  This bill was the last CEQA exemption challenge of the legislative year and thanks to the rallying effort, this “Wal-Mart Bill” as it is commonly referred, died when session ended.  This bill would have allowed big box stores to move into a vacant storefront and begin operating without any form of review detailing the environmental implications arising from the stores presence – like increased traffic and diesel outputs from delivery trucks.  

Though great strides have been made to halt what was started last year when the City of Industry was granted a CEQA exemption for their yet-to-be constructed football stadium, the fight is not entirely over yet. The voice of this massive coalition was heard loud and clear this legislative session, and we need to use the momentum gained this session to get us through the last hurdle we face this year – the budget.  California currently does not have a budget for this fiscal year, which began July 1st, and it has been widely rumored that Chevron will make their last ditch effort to be granted an exemption to their Richmond refinery by hitching itself to the budget in a trailer bill.  This is an exemption we have opposed and fought since the beginning and we will continue to be vigilant.

On Wednesday, dozens of people packed a hearing room at the State Capitol to speak out against one of this year’s most dangerous bills, SBx8 42 (Correa and Cogdill). The measure – backed by industry groups and Governor Schwarzenegger – would allow the administration to grant 125 handpicked projects a free pass from the enforcement provisions of the California Environmental Quality Act. This would fundamentally undermine the ability of communities to participate in decisions that determine how their neighborhoods grow and leave well-connected developers unaccountable for air pollution, traffic congestion, and other impacts of poorly-planned projects.

While the proponents of the bill attempted to paint their measure as a job creator, the committee members and representatives from local and statewide environmental groups, labor organizations, consumer advocates, health professionals, planners, and others didn’t buy it. They noted that projects given full exemptions from the Environmental Quality Act last year still have not created a single job, and pointed to hundreds of projects that could put people to work now – without the need to sacrifice environmental and public health protections. When Senator Alan Lowenthal (D-Long Beach) asked for real evidence that the Environmental Quality Act was slowing job growth, the bill’s backers were unable to offer up any credible examples.

As it became clear that the committee would not allow the Administration and Big Business to gut our hard-fought environmental protections, the bill’s authors choose to not bring the bill up for a vote.

Wednesday’s hearing demonstrated three things: First, Californians will fight hard to make sure our state’s premier environmental and public health law retains its essential enforcement provisions. Second, industry groups will use any excuse to try to weaken these safeguards; and they have no intention of giving up now. Third, and most important, when lawmakers get real facts in a public setting, they are willing to reject ideological attacks on California’s environment and communities.

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