Will CA make it easier to build big projects?

This story appeared on Calmatters

An electric vehicle charging station in Burlingame. Photo by Martin do Nascimento, CalMatters

If the Legislature approves the sweeping proposals to reform a landmark environmental law that Gov. Gavin Newsom proposed Friday, industry groups and developers may have one less roadblock to face in constructing ambitious projects, including affordable housing and critical infrastructure. 

But if the concerns of environmentalists go unaddressed, the state may set off a new series of environmental quagmires in its quest to build, build, build.

As reported by the CalMatters team, Newsom announced a package of legislative measures and signed an executive order on Friday. His goal: Speed up big infrastructure projects by limiting the time opponents can obstruct projects in court with challenges under the California Environmental Quality Act, also known as CEQA.

Some of the proposals include:

  • Limit the amount of time courts have to weigh challenges to nine months;
  • Provide more funding to agencies to speed up reviews;
  • Carve out more exemptions in the law so that favored projects can skip certain reviews.

California passed the law in 1970 following a rise of environmental conservation in the public consciousness. Since its enactment, neighborhood groups often used it to thwart big projects in nearby areas, and labor groups found the law useful to block projects in order to gain union-friendly concessions.

For decades, business interests have decried “CEQA abuse.” But in recent years, CEQA reform has garnered more liberal support as climate change becomes the prevailing environmental issue and renewable energy projects are seen as one of its major solutions.

Senate Republicans celebrated Newsom’s announcement on Friday, saying they are thrilled that the governor “is finally taking action.”

  • Senate GOP leader Brian Jones from El Cajon, in a statement: “We remain eager to collaborate with the governor… to fix California with solutions that address our state’s myriad issues ranging from homelessness to housing to water infrastructure.”

Reactions from environmental groups varied. The Sierra Club said it supports Newsom’s desire for more clean infrastructure, but that the proposal “needs a lot of work.” Meanwhile, Restore the Delta said in a statement that, “we have never been more disappointed in a California governor than we are with Gov. Newsom.”

The concerns about unfettered development, as well as the hidden pitfalls of clean energy projects, are not without merit. 

As the state marches towards putting more electric vehicles on the road, mining for lithium and producing electric batteries can cause their own set of harmful environmental impacts (such as triggering earthquakes) as well as unsafe labor conditions. Solar farms sprawled out in California deserts can disrupt sensitive wildlife and lead to health issues for nearby residents.

It’s too early to tell if the governor’s policies will ultimately pass the legislative process. Lawmakers still need to iron out details and the reforms will undoubtedly face challenges from CEQA supporters. Nevertheless, Newsom highlighted the possible impacts if his proposals are implemented.

  • Newsom, during a meeting with the California Chamber of Commerce on Thursday: “If we get nothing else done in the next three years, this may be one of the most consequential things that we can actually deliver.”

Kudos for CalMatters: CalMatters won eight awards from the California News Publishers Association for 2022 coverage, including first place in general excellence (among the digital news sites with the largest audiences) for the second year in a row — competing with, among others, the Los Angeles Times and San Francisco Chronicle. “I didn’t find one story that didn’t answer the question: Why does this matter to California?” the judge said. Read more from our engagement team.

Also, CalMatters’ health reporter Kristen Hwang won another prize for her coverage of rising syphilis rates, this time from the Asian American Journalists Association. Her story also won a first place award from the Association of Health Care Journalists, and was part of an entry that won third place in health coverage from the CNPA. Read more from our engagement team.

Focus on homeownership: CalMatters is hosting a panel discussion 8:30-9:30 a.m. Tuesday. In “Generation Locked Out: Is Homeownership in California Now Only for the Rich?” reporter Alejandro Lazo will moderate a panel of experts and advocates who will discuss the affordability crisis and what it means for first-time homebuyers. Register here to attend in person at our Sacramento office, or virtually.


Waiting on the bus (money)

Commuters quickly jump on the Metro bus at the Norwalk Green Line Station in Norwalk on April 3, 2023.
Commuters jump on the Metro bus at the Norwalk Green Line Station in Norwalk on April 3, 2023. Photo by Pablo Unzueta, CalMatters

When the governor released his latest plan to address California’s $31.5 billion budget shortfall recently, transit agencies did not get any of the operating money they were seeking. In response, the California Transit Association delivered a plan on Friday for how individual transit agencies should ask for money — and how they would be held accountable when they spent it.

As CalMatters’ state Capitol reporter Sameea Kamal explains, some of the association’s proposals include

  • An 18-month deadline for agencies to report to the state about how funds are spent to enhance ridership and address operating deficits;
  • A separate report submitted every other year on the cost and challenges agencies are facing in their recovery plans;
  • A requirement that transit governing boards pass resolutions publicly using a prescribed framework.

The association submitted its proposal to the governor and legislators and based them on recovery plans previously outlined by Bay Area and Los Angeles transit agencies, as well as a bill on transit oversight from Assemblymember Laura Friedman, a Burbank Democrat.

But the proposal didn’t satisfy concerns from some lawmakers, including state Sen. Steve Glazer, a vocal BART oversight critic.

  • Glazer, a Democrat from Orinda: “I thought it was an April Fool’s joke delivered in May. Self-policing is not accountability.”

For years, transit agencies have been bracing for a dire “fiscal cliff.” Declines in revenue, a drop in ridership — which plummeted since the COVID pandemic hit in 2020 and has yet to recover — and the end of federal aid have resulted in agencies seeking $5 billion from the state to stay afloat.  

But in his updated budget, the governor unveiled no aid — only his commitment to work with legislators to find a solution. With negotiations underway, the Legislature has until June 15 to pass the budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1.

Disabled UC students waiting, too

Cyn Gomez (he/they) photographed outside of their home in Berkeley on April 30, 2023. Gomez is a student at UC Berkeley who waited three weeks to get their accommodations for a disability approved. Photos for Shelby Knowles for CalMatters

Cyn Gomez, a student at UC Berkeley who waited two months to get their disability accommodations approved, outside their home in Berkeley. Photo by Shelby Knowles for CalMatters

For college students struggling with depression, learning disabilities, autism and other afflictions, academic accommodations can grant them the extra support they need to succeed in their education. But as Megan Tagami of CalMatters’ College Journalism Network writes, many University of California students are not getting the help they need through the university’s understaffed and under-resourced Disabled Students’ Program.

Under federal law, universities are required to provide disabled students with equal access to opportunities on campus. Support can include note-taking services, on-campus transportation, additional time for exams and more. For the University of California, one workgroup wants the school to provide one disability specialist for every 250 disabled undergraduate students. 

(Keep in mind, not all students with disabilities pursue support services and data from the National Center for Education Statistics show that nearly 1 in 5 undergraduate students reports having a disability.)

But as the stigma around disabilities continues to decrease and more students seek accommodations, the number of eligible students greatly outpace the number of disability specialists. UC Merced reported a staffing ratio of one specialist per 350 students, while UC Riverside reported one per 600.

In response, the UC Student Association is requesting $36 million from the state for the 2023-24 fiscal year and beyond to hire more than 100 additional specialists. In its budget proposal, the state Senate allocated $19 million for disabled student services at the University of California. The governor provided no funding in his spending proposal.

Until the Legislature finishes hashing out the budget in June, students such as Marvia Cunanan, who is autistic and diagnosed with ADHD, told Megan they must navigate their schooling while awaiting accommodations.

  • Cunanan, a UC Santa Barbara student: “Three weeks without accommodations, you’ve already had two quizzes or an assignment that you needed extended time for. Without those things arranged, it could really impact someone’s academic career.”

Seven counties, four months to go

Gov. Gavin Newsom announces a proposed a 2024 ballot initiative to improve mental health services across the state, at Alvarado Hospital in San Diego on March 19, 2023. Photo by Adriana Heldiz, The San Diego Union-Tribune via AP, Pool

Gov. Newsom announces a proposed a 2024 ballot initiative to improve mental health services at Alvarado Hospital in San Diego on March 19, 2023. Photo by Adriana Heldiz, The San Diego Union-Tribune via AP, Pool

For the California counties that opted to be one of the first to roll out the state’s new court system for people with untreated schizophrenia and other severe mental illness, the clock is ticking.

On Oct. 1, San Francisco, San Diego, Orange, Riverside, Stanislaus, Tuolumne and Glenn counties are expected to launch CARE courts. And as the first seven to pilot this program, they will have to troubleshoot many of the initial hiccups, reports the Los Angeles Times.

One issue is accurately anticipating how many individuals will be monitored. In 2020, an estimated 161,000 people were unhoused in California. Newsom’s administration acknowledged that CARE courts will serve only a small fraction of that population, from 7,000 to 12,000 people a year.

According to the Los Angeles Times, Orange County estimates it will receive petitions for about 1,500 people in the first year. Filtering out those who will agree to a treatment plan and those who do not fit the criteria for CARE courts, officials whittle down that estimate to about 700.

The smaller county of Stanislaus identified 150 people it would serve the first year, but it’s “anyone’s guess” beyond that, the county’s supervisor told the news outlet.

Other prominent issues include creating a streamlined workflow that involves several different parties, grappling with the shortage of mental health workers and helping family members navigate the process (for that, Riverside County is developing an app to track a patient’s progress in the system).

As part of the inaugural group, the seven counties get a hefty cut of initial funding — $26 million, while the remaining 51 counties share $31 million. Building on the new court system, the governor also launched a campaign during his State of the State tour in March for a $3 billion bond measure in 2024 to go towards mental health housing and treatment beds.

Newsom signed CARE courts into law last September. The remaining counties have until December 2024 to launch their CARE courts, though Los Angeles County pushed up its rollout date to Dec. 1, 2023.


CalMatters Commentary

CalMatters columnist Dan Walters: California has spent billions of dollars to close the achievement gap for at-risk students, but there’s scant evidence of impact.

Families of victims of police violence should get state compensation, writes Vinny Eng, director of policy, advocacy and programs for Safer Together.

Without CEQA, California will be a more dangerous place, writes Aruna Prabhala, senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity.


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