August 30, 1997 - From the August, 1997 issue

State Legislature Warms to a Proactive Environmental Agenda

By Sam Schuchat, Executive Director, California League of Conservation Voters. Celebrating its 25th Anniversary, the California League of Conservation Voters is the non-partisan political action arm of California’s environmental movement. Its mission is to protect the environmental quality of the State by working to elect environmentally responsible candidates to State and federal office, then holding them accountable to the environmental agenda. 

Sam Schuchat: “In California and all over the country, politicians won and lost based on their environmental colors.”

The 1996 fall election marked a significant turning point for the environment in the State Capitol. After several years of backlash against environmental protection, the newest wave of elected officials has brought to Sacramento the most proactive environmental agenda in years. 

The 1997 legislative agenda is a decisive return to California's track record as a national leader in environmental protection. While the 70s and 80s were landmark decades, the 90s have been tumultuous. The late 80s saw the last of a steady stream of progressive changes and developments in State environmental laws, such as the Oil Spill Prevention Act, the Bottle Bill, and the Integrated Waste Management Act. In the early 90s, environmental advocates switched to the defensive in reaction to a host of new legislation targeted to weaken environmental protections. The middle part of this decade will be remembered for an all-out assault on federal and State environmental laws. Environmentalists found themselves in battle after battle to defend CEQA, the California Endangered Species Act and other environmental laws. Since 1993, CLCV's annual Environmental Scorecard has documented a sweeping array of bills aimed at the heart of California's environmental safeguards. 

Public dissatisfaction with the attack on environmental laws combined with a high turnover of seats due to term limits led to voter action. Last November voters sent to Sacramento a group of freshmen highly aware of  their constituents' green leanings. Among this new group are some Southern California lawmakers who have joined with seasoned environmental champions in an agenda ranging from advancing environmental justice law to coastal protection and bringing public health standards to levels that protect children. These proposals will have a strong impact in the Los Angeles basin.

A rising star in the Latino community, Senator Hilda Solis (D-El Monte) has authored SB 1113, a bill which would revise CEQA guidelines to require that information involving environmental justice issues be included in environmental impact reports. Similarly, SB 451, by veteran Senator Diane Watson (D-Los Angeles), would require the land-use element of a local general plan to examine the distribution and location of solid and hazardous waste facilities, and to include policies to avoid the disproportionate impact of these facilities on low-income and minority communities. 


Recent national media attention on the pollution threat to ocean swimmers has highlighted San Diego Assemblyman Howard Wayne's AB 411. Part of a package of coastal protection bills, AB 411 requires the State to develop recreational coastal water quality criteria and monitoring procedures. Any time contaminants exceed a region's established criteria, the information must be publicly posted on warning signs at beach access points. Los Angeles' world famous beaches attract tourists by the thousands and are a major asset to urban communities. With public attention on a number of Los Angeles based studies on the health effects of coastal pollution, the Los Angeles area economy can benefit from this bill aiming to ensure public confidence in beach health.

An experienced Assembly representative, Martha Escutia (D-Huntington Park) has authored the Children's Environmental Health Act (AB 278), which calls for increased pollution monitoring and pollution prevention programs for industrial plants that are located near schools and day care centers. It would also bring public health standards for pollution to levels that will protect children and infants, not just adults. Recently a report by the Environmental Working Group revealed that nearly 109,000 children in California are attending 147 schools in the State located in areas with high pollution levels. The schools—many of them in the Los Angeles area—are within one mile of where monitored air pollution levels exceed the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's proposed new standards for microscopic airborne panicles. 

Is there a lesson here? Yes. What changed the political climate from assault to progress on the environment was the 1996 election. In California and all over the country, politicians won and lost based on their environmental colors. The lesson is that you can vote for the environment, and that politicians who do not listen to their constituents do not get reelected. 


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