AEP Capitol Days Recap - March 2022
The Association of Environmental Professionals (AEP) held its annual Day at the Capitol. The lobby days are an opportunity for AEP Legislative Review Committee members to meet with legislators and their staffs and discuss the important issues we are engaged on. Due to COVID restrictions, this year’s visit had to be a virtual one again for the second year. The Legislature is just completing its move into a new building. The existing historical building will remain in place, but the “Annex” building attached to it will be torn down and rebuilt. During the interim, a new office building was built to house the legislature. We were hoping to visit the “Swing Space” for the first time, but will hopefully get to visit the new building next year. While legislative staff are returning to their offices, many are not yet holding in-person meetings. As such, the Legislative Review Committee resorted to Zoom to meet with members and staff. Despite the circumstances, it was still an incredibly productive couple of days.
The focus of our Capitol meetings continues to be an introduction to AEP and our mission. We also emphasized our main high-level priority in the legislature, which is to help ensure new laws are implementable by practitioners and don’t cause unintended negative consequences. We also spoke about several of the main bills we are monitoring and offered up AEP as a resource to legislators and staff as they are considering the myriad proposals before them.
With the flexibility offered by Zoom lobby meetings, we held a series of meetings over two days on March 8 and 9. On March 10, AEP President Bill Halligan and Legislative Review Committee co-chairs Betty Dehoney and Kristin Blackson hosted our annual presentation to the Legislature. This year, the topics were a CEQA 101, a discussion about environmental justice considerations in CEQA and NEPA, and an explanation of Reverse-CEQA. The Zoom presentation was one of our most attended to date, with over 60 staff from the Capitol and Administrative Agencies participating.
Among all the offices we met with, the hottest topic was the biggest CEQA news item in quite some time: the Berkeley student enrollment issue. Our meetings began the day after the Supreme Court sided with the lower court in its decision to require UC Berkeley to cap emissions at the amount from their last plan for which an approved environmental review was completed. The news spread wildly in Sacramento, with many offices expressing concerns for the students who may be denied an opportunity to attend the UC. As CEQA has been a hotly debated and criticized topic for many years, some interest groups who have long advocated for changes to CEQA also used the story as an opportunity to tout their proposed changes. The day after AEP’s Capitol Days wrapped up, Governor Newsom and Legislative Leadership announced a deal for emergency legislation that would overrule the court’s decision and allow UC Berkeley to continue with its planned enrollment number. Additionally, the bill, SB 118, states that student enrollment increases alone will no longer constitute a “project” under CEQA. The legislation was fast-tracked through the legislative process and by the evening of Monday, March 14, the bill was signed into law by the Governor.
AEP is also tracking a number of CEQA related bills that are just beginning their legislative processes this year. February 18 was the bill introduction deadline and May 27 is the final day for bills to pass from their house of origin. April will be the primary month for policy committees to hear and vet the many proposed new bills. One bill that has already made it out of the Assembly and onto the Senate is AB 1001 (C. Garcia). The bill would encourage mitigation measures taken under CEQA to occur locally in the impacted areas and would also require lead agencies to consider the principles of environmental justice when implementing CEQA.
Another bill we are examining is SB 886 (Wiener), which would exempt from CEQA student housing and worker housing projects built by colleges and universities on campus property. While the bill was introduced long before the UC Berkeley situation made headlines, the bill has been instantly connected to the case. Sen. Wiener is primarily focused on trying to help address housing affordability for students and faculty. AEP is also closely watching SB 1410 (Caballero), which would eliminate VMT review and replace it with LOS for determining significant impacts in all communities except Transit Priority Areas. Both bills are awaiting a hearing in the Sen. Environmental Quality Committee.
Finally, like last year, AEP is involved in the discussion around remote government meetings. Having found that public participation is improved when constituents are able to participate remotely, the Legislature is considering ways to make the process easier under the Brown Act once the COVID-19 pandemic is (hopefully) behind us.
While COVID restrictions are continuing to lift in the state Capitol, it will still be another year of policymaking dictated by the virus. Remote testimony is likely to continue, but in-person meetings are also likely increase assuming case number remain low. AEP will be following along throughout the year and weighing in as needed on important legislation, even if that engagement must be done virtually for another session.