If I were to write another book on California politics – which is highly unlikely – it would be called “Unintended Consequences,” detailing how political decrees mutate to have unintended effects.
Examples of the syndrome are legion, but here are just two:
t In the 1960s, newly elected Governor Ronald Reagan signed two bills that purported to reform the care and treatment of the mentally ill. They set in motion a phase-out of the state’s vast system of psychiatric hospitals in favor of community mental health clinics. Reagan wanted to save money, and advocates for the mentally ill had denounced the prison and abusive atmosphere in hospitals.
Reagan, successor governors, and the legislature never fully delivered on the promise of community mental health care, leaving many mentally ill people to fend for themselves then and since, and contributing to the homelessness crisis that now plagues the state.
t Two seemingly separate acts in the late 1970s, the extension of collective bargaining rights to California public employees in 1975 and the passage of Proposition 13, the historic property tax limit, in 1978, led together with the domination of the public employees’ unions over the Legislative Assembly.
Proposition 13 indirectly transferred financial responsibility for schools and much of local government to the state. As the state and local workforce became almost completely unionized, the concentration of financial power in Sacramento gave unions the incentive to reshape the legislature into a predominantly pro-union body.
The California Environmental Quality Act, also signed by Reagan, is a third major example. Its stated objective was to oblige project promoters to assess their impact on the environment and to mitigate, as far as possible, the harmful effects.
However, in the more than half a century since its adoption, the CEQA has turned into a legal quagmire that can stall even the most benign projects indefinitely, as opponents raise objections that often have nothing to do with do with environmental protection.
It is not uncommon, for example, for construction unions to threaten or sue CEQA in ill-disguised efforts to force project managers to give their members exclusive access to jobs. The CEQA has become so onerous that the legislature often grants large-scale projects — such as sports arenas — specific exemptions from some of its provisions, including this year’s Super Bowl stadium in Inglewood.
The latest example of CEQA being bent for purposes never intended occurs in Berkeley, where the city government and a group called Save Berkeley’s Neighborhoods have sued to block University of California plans to increase registrations.
Alameda County Judge Brad Seligman upheld his challenge to UC’s plans for a new academic building and faculty housing, saying CEQA studies of the project were inadequate and did not fully consider impacts on noise, housing and travel. The university has also been ordered to freeze enrollment at 2020-21 levels.
It’s the same kind of not-in-my-backyard attitude that has been so detrimental to closing the gap between California’s housing needs and its housing production, and in this case, will block access to many thousands of students who had planned to enter university.
The unintended consequences of CEQA call for reform, something former Governor Jerry Brown described as “the work of the Lord,” even though he was unwilling to take it on.
Dan Walters is a columnist for CalMatters, where this first appeared.