October 30, 1996 - From the October, 1996 issue

Capital Perspective: A Tough Legislative Year for Environment

By: Gerald Meral, Executive Dir., Planning and Conservation League


Gerald Meral: “Only the most ridiculous measures failed in the Assembly, and even then only by narrow votes.”

Another two-year California legislative session has come to an end, and the environmental community can respond with a hearty “Thank Heavens!”

This was undoubtedly the worst legislative session for the environment since at least the early 1960s, before the environmental issue was really on the legislative agenda. Numerous bills repealing a wide variety of environmental laws were introduced, and several of them passed. 

As usual, three major players determined the course of events: the governor, the Senate, and the Assembly. Environmentalists found only one ally (the Senate), and then only part of the time. Assembly Speaker Curt Pringle (D-Orange County) made his antipathy to the environment known early by appointing an incredibly hostile Natural Resources Committee, formerly a bastion of Conservationists under Willie Brown. The Toxics and Water, Parks and Wildlife Committees were no better. His California Coastal Commission appointees were hostile to the purpose of the Act. 

Assembly Republicans gleefully passed bills virtually repealing the California Endangered Species Act, Safe Drinking Water Act, California Environmental Quality Act, Forest Practices Act, and many other statutes dating back to the 1960's. They were joined by California's own "Blue Dog Democrats", largely from the Central Valley, who often provided the necessary votes when some coastal Republicans choked on some of the more extreme measures. 

Only the most ridiculous measures failed in the Assembly, and even then only by narrow votes. 

The Governor's role was to sponsor some of the worst measures, and do absolutely nothing to slow the progress of the others. He did not veto or even oppose any of the worst legislation. 

The only real hope was in the state Senate. President Pro Tem Lockyer often went out of his way to throw roadblocks in front of some of the worst Assembly bills. He split jurisdiction on the California Environmental Quality Act between several committees, including the most favorable Natural Resources and Wildlife Committee. He also occasionally joined environmental lobbyists in opposing some of the worst Assembly bills. 

But Senate bills were another story. Nearly every bad environmental bill that was passed and signed had a Senate author, and some of the others that were the worst threats were also Senate bills. This was especially true when Lockyer had only 21 Democrats to rely on. The situation improved somewhat when Byron Sher was elected to the Senate, in large measure due to his environmental credentials and support. 

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What finally came out of all the thousands of hearings, press releases, action alerts and hubbub? 

One really good environmental measure was passed and signed, and will appear on the ballot as Proposition 204. It is a $995 million general obligation bond act for water, largely for environmental purposes: wastewater recycling, water conservation, river parkways, and fish and wildlife protection. It was the happy convergence of the governor wanting a win on water, and the water community's desire to improve their relationship with the environmental community as a major fix in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta is being prepared. 

But several truly awful environmental bills were also passed and signed, accomplishing the following:

  • Repeal of a century old law imposing strict liability on those who spill oil and toxic chemicals into or near state waters. This heavily lobbied bill was opposed by the California District Attorneys Association, but the governor signed it anyway.
  • Virtual repeal of a plastic container recycling law which was passed only a few years ago with industry support.
  • Repeal of a wide variety of environmental requirements on retrofitted highway bridges.
  • Repeal of voter approved protection of the California Mountain Lion, although this measure was rejected by the voters in the March election. 
  • Repeal of a tough law regulating the content of environmental claims in advertising, which had recently been upheld by the courts. 

Since several of his own anti-environmental initiatives were defeated in the Legislature (repeal of the California Endangered Species Act; virtual repeal of the California Environmental Quality Act; repeal of most of California's toxic control laws), the governor has been using the regulatory process to accomplish his goals. 

  • His Department of Toxics Substances Control is now attempting to revise its regulations to make most of California's toxics laws unenforceable. 
  • The Resources Agency is attempting to reduce protection of endangered species through changes in the guidelines governing the California Environmental Quality Act. 
  • The Water Resources Control Board is preparing to declare much existing underground water pollution as harmless. 
  • Some of his Coastal Commission appointees were prepared to fire long-time Executive Director Peter Douglasfor being too environmental. 

What does 1997 hold? Sadly, the environment has become a far too partisan issue in California. Gone are the days when Republican senators like Peter Behr and Tom Campbell could be counted on to have favorable environmental voting records. If the Republicans take both houses of the Legislature in November, many bad bills will probably pass.

If the present situation remains, Californians will continue to depend on the Senate leadership to at least maintain the current environmental laws. They have virtually no hope of major improvements, unless they come through the initiative process.

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© 2022 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.