I am not one to say I told you so, so I won’t say it. However, late yesterday, Darrell Steinberg killed CEQA reform, after John Perez promised Brian Nestande that Nestande’s vote for a tax increase would result in CEQA reform and a better business environment for California. Perez lied, Nestande’s political career died.
I was hoping I was wrong, but I wasn’t. I don’t blame Nestande, this is an old trick of the Democrats, done time after time.
I had an advantage when I first joined the Legislature. I was a part of the first class of Legislators elected under term limits, which meant there were a number of Legislators who had been there for years. Legislators like Pat Nolan, Ross Johnson, Frank Hill, Bill Leonard, John Lewis, Bill Jones, Trice Harvey, Dick Mountjoy, and many others would take time to talk to us new guys about how the Legislature “really worked.” These weren’t policy discussions, they were discussions about rules and tactics, and how we could be misled. I used to hang on every word, to learn about what happened. One fun discussion, had with Charles Calderon and Steve Peace sometimes in attendance, were discussions about the “Gang of Five” and how they plotted to take control of the Assembly. The personal relationships between the Legislators and the Third House (who used to work for who, and who could be trusted), the broken deals of the past, and how they were broken, the stories of the “Lou Papan/Ross Johnson” Rules Committee rumbles, were entertaining, but more important, informative.
I learned how to see a bad deal coming, when Republicans were going to get rolled, and how it was going to get done.
CEQA reform is absolutely necessary. While protecting the environment is an important issue, CEQA is not used for that purpose. It is used more as a fundraising device for environmental groups and unions, who, by using its procedures, extort money out of businesses and developers by threatening their projects at the local government level. Business have learned it is just easier to pay off than fight these groups, because CEQA, quite frankly, is written so that environmental groups never lose in court, regardless of how tenuous their relationship to the project at issue, or how bogus their environmental complaint. Nestande is right to want to change it.
However, it is a gravy train for groups who claim environmental credentials, but really don’t care about the environment. They would gladly sacrifice the environment to line their own pockets, and they do it on a regular basis. Just pay us money, they say, and we will drop our objection to your project. Then, when the Legislators seek to stop this abuse, these same environmental groups wrap themselves in trees and flowers, and claim that children will die or turn into mutants if their gravy train is cut off. The Dems fall into line, say no, and CEQA reform dies, every time. CEQA will never change while Democrats are in charge.
Which made my prediction easy. First, the tax increase in the Perez bill Nestande voted for (to get CEQA reform) was not legislatively tied to any reform. Second, the deal was with Perez, and not with Perez, Steinberg and the Governor (all three of which would be necessary to make the deal stick). Finally, it was CEQA reform, an environmental sacred cow. Sure, there were lots of letters to give Steinberg cover to renege on Perez’s deal, sure, Perez will apologize to Nestande for the dirty deed Steinberg pulled on him. However, Perez got what he wanted, his tax increase passed. Nestande got a retirement at the end of his term limits, and fired from his caucus chair job.
Once again, in Nestande’s defense, he didn’t have a Ross Johnson or a Pat Nolan, or a Tom McClintock, or a Dick Mountjoy or a Bill Leonard to tell him what was going to happen. Term limits made sure of that. But that is one of the reasons I write these columns. I had that advantage in my time in the Legislature, and this is my only way to pass on the knowledge I gathered from these great battle hardened veterans. They were mentors and they were friends. Their work and advice is sorely missed, and all I can do is pass on what I have learned from them to those who will listen. Hopefully, it will help one or two others by informing them, so they won’t make the same mistake Brian Nestande made.