AEP Legislative Update August 2020

In keeping with the trend of 2020, the final night of this year’s legislative session was certainly one to remember (or forget). Following a positive COVID-19 test by a Senator, nearly the entire Senate Republican Caucus had to participate and vote remotely. The process had some hiccups, as expected, including the common “you’re muted” moments and the “you’re not muted – we can hear you” instances. But things really came to a head on the final day. Despite having roughly 1/3 of the normal number of bills, poor planning led to nearly 100 bills still needing votes, sometimes in both houses, in the final 12 hours of session.

Attempted rule changes to expedite the process backfired, leading to a 90-minute delay in session as Senate Democrats and Republicans butted heads and raced to meet the midnight deadline. On the Assembly side, while voting tends to happen quicker, they had more to do and more members wishing to speak on legislation. In the end, both houses were not able to pass all bills before them by the Constitutional 12am deadline. However, they were able to pass a few major priorities: renter protections from the anticipated COVID-19-caused spike in evictions, police reform measures, and the state budget.

While the Legislature managed the end of an unpredictable legislative session, Governor Newsom remained focused on the pandemic and wildfires gripping the state. He continues to give regular updates on both fronts and significant staff and agency resources are dedicated to putting out the fires and getting the pandemic under control. With cases trending down and a lack of clear guidance being a consistent criticism, Newsom released new guidelines for the reopening of businesses and schools, which takes effect in September. However, with peak fire season approaching and flu season coming soon after, many remain nervous about the next few months.

In mid-August, before the end of session push, the Legislature held their Appropriations Committee Suspense File hearings. These are the annual hearings where many “fiscal” bills are held for the year due to costs and other considerations. With a tight budget and timeline this year, we saw many bills that AEP was tracking fail to move off Suspense. Due to cost concerns, the Legislature also decided not to allocate funding from the Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund, which is normally spent annually towards environmental projects. Instead, given low Cap & Trade Auction revenues, the Legislature will wait until 2021 when the fund hopefully has more money.

In response to the wild lightning storms and resulting wildfires throughout California, the legislature attempted to pull together a last-minute proposal to spend billions of dollars towards fire prevention. The proposal would have used GGRF funds, other special and general funds, as well as a monthly charge on electric utility ratepayers. Despite robust lobbying from environmental groups, the bill faced stiff opposition from utilities and businesses (who would pay much of those monthly utility charges) and was unable to secure enough votes.

The combined forces of cost burdens, legislative capacity limits, and timing issues, meant very few bills that AEP was watching closely made it to the Governor’s desk. Please see the list with details below.

  1. AB 2323 (Friedman) – This bill aimed to align, simplify, and improve the numerous CEQA exemptions that currently exist for infill housing projects. The bill was held on the Senate Appropriations Suspense File.
  2. AB 168 (Aguiar Curry) – This bill is sponsored by tribal governments and seeks to add a form of tribal consultation into the streamlined housing process from SB 35. The language would add tribal cultural resources to the list of resources that cannot be impacted by a project for it to be eligible for ministerial approval. This will require a slightly modified and condensed form of consultation before a project can move forward under SB 35. The bill was the final bill to pass the legislature at about 1:30am Tuesday morning (as an “urgency” bill, it could be voted on after midnight). It now awaits the Governor’s signature.
  3. SB 288 (Wiener) – This bill would grant CEQA exemptions for a number of transportation projects to encourage quicker development as a form of economic stimulus, including, bicycling infrastructure and transit improvement projects. The bill passed from the Legislature and awaits the Governor’s signature.
  4. SB 995 (Atkins) – This bill would extend the AB 900 program that allows expedited review for CEQA challenges on projects that obtain certification from the state. This bill would adjust the program to focus on housing projects. The bill failed passage due to the timer running out on the last night of session. The bill still needed a vote on the Senate Floor but could not be brought up before midnight.
  5. SB 1120 (Atkins) – This bill would have required ministerial approval of duplexes, even on lots zoned for single family housing. The bill would have also required ministerial approval of applications for urban lot splits. The bill failed passage due to the timer running out on the last night of session. The bill still needed a vote on the Senate Floor but could not be brought up before midnight.
  6. SB 1385 (Caballero) – This bill would allow housing projects meeting certain density and other requirements to be built on property zoned for office or retail use and makes corresponding changes to SB 35. The bill failed passage in the Assembly Local Government Committee.
  7. SB 902 (Wiener) – This housing bill would provide a CEQA exemption for local governments to zone residential properties up to ten units/acre if certain conditions are met. The bill was again held on the Senate Appropriations Suspense File, as similar attempts have in past years.
  8. AB 3279 (Friedman) – This bill would have made numerous changes to CEQA’s process. However, following opposition from environmental and labor groups, the bill has been narrowed to clean up several sections of the CEQA code, allow a lead agency to reject a petitioner’s request to prepare the record of proceedings, and require a court to schedule a case management conference within 30 days of filing. Despite narrowing the bill to satisfy opposition, the bill was held on the Senate Appropriations Suspense File.
  9. AB 609 (Levine) – This newly introduced bill would add online noticing requirements for CEQA documents, including posting on lead agency websites and filing with OPR. The bill was never set for hearing and is likely to be reintroduced next year.
  10. SB 55 (Jackson) – This bill was another gut and amend. It was essentially a repeat of Senator Jackson’s bill from earlier in the session, SB 950, which failed in its first hearing. SB 55 contains many of the same provisions and would make significant changes to CEQA. It was not set for hearing in the Assembly.
  11. SB 182 (Jackson) – This bill was a leftover bill that failed last year. Near the end of session, many provisions of the bill were deleted, leaving only less controversial provisions. The bill will require local governments to do certain wildfire hazard planning in the safety element of general plans. The planning will need to include a retrofit strategy for existing buildings. Further, the local government would be prohibited from approving any new housing developments in a Very High Fire Hazard Severity Zone unless the project met specified wildfire risk reduction standards. The bill passed from the legislature on the final day and awaits the Governor’s signature.

With the legislature now adjourned until December, attention turns to the Governor who will have to sign or veto the hundreds of bills before him by September 30. During this time, legislators will be wholly focused on the November election, where most members are battling to keep their seats in Sacramento.