Has public participation been Terminated?
Jan 9, 2009
Arnold-Cheney.jpg
The Governor meets with the Vice-President in 2003.

In an effort to keep his state fiscally afloat amidst turbulent economic times and an imminent budget crisis, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger is jeopardizing longstanding policies designed to both protect the state’s environment and facilitate public participation in government.

His first priority is to temporarily revoke the 1970 California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). Under this Act, developers are required to submit documentation of their projects’ potential environmental impact to the government for public review. The Governor is requesting that this process be skipped to accelerate the construction of a dozen highways throughout the state, which he argues will bring money and jobs to struggling citizens.

State Democrats have acquiesced to this first request, conceding that immediate economic needs supersede those of conducting extensive environmental reviews on already somewhat vetted transportation projects.

But Schwarzenegger has not stopped there. The Governor is also seeking to acquire federal money that will be exempt from similar national environmental regulations. As reported in Greenwire,

“This week, Schwarzenegger sent the president-elect a letter urging him to consider funding $44 billion in transportation, energy and water projects when Congress takes up an economic stimulus package. He also requested action to ‘waive or greatly streamline National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA) requirements consistent with [California’s] statutory proposals to modify the California Environment Quality Act for transportation projects.’ ”

Lastly, Schwarzenegger has sought to indefinitely establish a three-member “super Cabinet,” comprised of his own Cabinet members. They would hold the power to approve and initiate any development project normally submitted for review, thereby bypassing standard environmental impact analysis.

Unlike the first request, the second two systemically threaten the ideals of environmental protection, public access to information, and public participation in government.

One could argue that relaxing CEQA and using money for specific projects despite their environmental impact is a necessary evil given these economic times. But ultimately, it must not set a precedent for pervasive regulatory exemption. Schwarzenegger’s second request – granting California billions of federal dollars for a slew of projects that have yet to be created or fully planned – opens the door for rampant environmental abuse and ought to be avoided at all costs.

The new presidential administration should not approve California’s request to bypass NEPA regulations on forthcoming stimulus money. While conducting reviews might slow down the process of pumping money back into the state’s economy, the environmental damage caused by poorly planned development will outlast this current recession.

Likewise, the creation of a “super-Cabinet” is a potentially catastrophic development for environmentalists, and luckily has been met with overt hostility by Californian policymakers. As Greenwire reported,

“Alicia Trost, spokeswoman for state Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg (D), said the super Cabinet and a provision that would grant contractors “immunity” from the judicial process are nonstarters with Democrats in the state capital. ‘We’re not quite sure what that has to do with us running out of money in three weeks,’ Trost said.”

These new plans are a step back for Schwarzenegger, and a clear product of political calculation rather than prudent foresight. The Governor’s recent decision to raise taxes and generate income has angered many of his business-owning constituents, who, already facing hard times, are being unabashedly appeased by efforts to pervasively waive important environmental review and promote unfettered development.

This immediate need for political support and fiscal growth must not blind Schwarzenegger to the timeless importance and value of opening up development projects to review, where the public can learn of proposed action and petition their representatives for changes that they believe ought to be implemented. In the long term, a knowledgeable, engaged public, as well as a preserved environment, are much more valuable than the speedy implementation of development policies. Moreover, while the economy will rebound, a disengaged and apathetic public or a devastated environment will be much more stubborn to change. California must proceed with these facts in mind and resist their Governor’s strong-arm approach to political maneuvering.