Apparently, when California legislators put their minds to it, they can move at lightning speed to undo judicial mischief. Last week, after the state’s Supreme Court upheld a lower-court decision capping University of California–Berkeley enrollments and forcing the university not to offer admission to thousands of students, the legislator voted to modify the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) to exclude universities from some of its more onerous requirements. In doing so retroactively, legislators made sure they could do an end-run around the court ruling. Governor Gavin Newsom, looking to shore up his support in the run-up to his reelection campaign, signed the bill into law in something under a New York minute.
Now, the governor ought to use the public outrage generated by the UC Berkeley case to push for deeper reforms to CEQA as a whole, to make it easier for cities and developers to build more homeless shelters, drug treatment clinics, supportive housing units, and high-density, multiunit apartment buildings—as well as to make it harder for every Tom, Dick, and Harry NIMBYist out there to use the courts to gum up the works on vital projects needed to get a handle on California’s addiction, homelessness, and mental health crises.
Everyone knows there’s a problem with California’s landmark CEQA legislation. Put simply, it makes it impossible to implement the 40-year-old Housing Accountability Act, and a package of affordable housing laws passed in 2018, all of which were designed to make easier the building of housing for low- and moderate-income residents in a market that, even back then, was chronically overpriced and subject to squeezes in supply. Since the HAA was passed, what was already a vast problem of lack of affordable housing has only gotten more vast and more intractable. CEQA also makes it more difficult to build shelters for the homeless, even in self-proclaimed liberal oases such as Venice Beach and San Francisco—both of which have shameful numbers of homeless, and both of which have seen CEQA lawsuits in recent years blocking the building of shelters.
CEQA lawsuits have slowed down to the point of destroying projects to build housing for disabled veterans, to expand public transit systems, and to build infill housing on abandoned lots. That’s not progressive politics; that’s simply selfishness dressed up in an environmental costume.
More than 10 years ago, bipartisan momentum built to modify the law; but reform stalled and then died. In 2014, then–Senate President pro Tempore Darrell Steinberg—who is currently mayor of Sacramento, and is a longtime advocate for services for the homeless and for the mentally ill—also pushed CEQA reform. That, too, didn’t seal the deal on changing the law.
Today, CEQA remains as powerful as—if not more powerful than—it has ever been. What began as one of the country’s most important and vital environmental laws has morphed into a monster, a virtual Magna Carta for housing dysfunction and the worsening of social inequity.
Speaking of social inequity, Governor Newsom’s State of the State address promised significant relief to Californians who are being slammed by the country’s highest gas prices. Statewide, the average is now $5.86 per gallon. In Los Angeles, it has topped $6 a gallon. A couple weeks back, I interviewed young adults in training for a variety of jobs in health care—from pharmacy assistants to nurses to medical technicians—who were now paying upwards of $100 a week for the privilege of buying gas to commute from their homes to classes each day. For low-income residents earning at most a mere few hundred dollars per week, a few cents’ increase in gas prices isn’t simply an inconvenience but a massive economic stressor. When the price increases by over a dollar a gallon, as it has done in California recently, that adds up to an economic catastrophe.
On Wednesday, the governor unveiled a raft of proposals, which he is looking to the legislature to act on immediately, that would pump $11 billion toward ameliorating the impact of these soaring gas prices. The centerpiece of Newsom’s plan is a debit card gift of $400 mailed out to all owners of private vehicles in California—up to a maximum of two cars per family. That subsidy alone will cost California a whopping $9 billion.
Newsom’s rebate plan is a whole bunch better than nothing, but a whole lot worse than what should be done. The problem with rising gas prices is that they hit the poor disproportionately hard—the people who can’t afford to upgrade to electric cars and who drive gas-guzzling clunkers to work; who often live far from their places of work, since they have been priced out of local housing markets by California’s dysfunctional real estate processes, and whose work and the equipment they need to transport to do it often necessitate their driving pick-ups or other large, fuel-inefficient vehicles.
Giving $400 to every Californian taxpayer makes precious little sense. It costs a ton, but it doesn’t necessarily get the money into the right hands. For me, since I drive a plug-in hybrid, which, if I use the plug-in component effectively, gets me up to 80 or 90 miles per gallon, it’s essentially free money. I don’t particularly need the additional $400, as even at $6 per gallon I’m not buying that much gas. For a billionaire in Silicon Valley, the $400 is an irrelevance. For an affluent suburbanite who chooses to buy a vastly fuel-inefficient SUV, that $400 simply props up an unsustainable lifestyle choice. By contrast, for the poor rural resident who is now spending an extra $50–$100 or so per week on gas, that $400, while welcome, is a deeply inadequate response to a crisis costing him or her many thousands of dollars per year, and forcing vastly unpalatable choices about what necessities to go without in order to buy gas to get to work. So, too, the governor’s ideas to limit certain gas and diesel taxes are regressive, giving a financial break to rich and poor alike, and at the same time massively impacting a vital part of the state’s revenue-raising calculus.
Newsom’s on far firmer ground with the rest of his package: hundreds of millions of dollars devoted to providing free public transit to up to 3 million low-income Californians over the coming months, and fast-tracking the distribution of close to $2 billion of the already-planned $10 billion in subsidies to encourage residents to buy zero-emission vehicles.
Unfortunately, at the federal level the response hasn’t been nearly as creative. Biden’s team is leaning in on proposals for a temporary suspension of federal gas taxes for the rest of the year, having decided that, for some reason, distributing EBT cards to help buy gas would be impractical. That’s a lousy response to what is at its core a crisis of poverty; again, it provides identical benefits to poor and rich alike, and does nothing to get Americans to change their transportation habits.
Wouldn’t it make more sense to target the gas subsidies to poorer people, especially to low-income residents with long drives to and from work? And, while we’re at it, to dramatically scale up tax credits and purchase subsidy programs for people wanting to trade in their old combustion engines for fuel cell and other electric vehicles?
As a short-term fix, why couldn’t California or the federal government implement a targeted gas-stamps program—with gas stations nationally mandated to accept the stamps, much as grocery stores have to accept EBT payments from SNAP recipients—channeling transportation subsidies to poor families to buy gas for a specified period of time? As with the food stamps program, it should be progressive, so that the poorer a family is, or the further they have to drive, the more their benefits increase. As a longer-term fix, however, why not use this moment, as Newsom clearly hopes to do in California, to increase the subsidies provided to low-income residents in all 50 states for purchasing fuel cell and other electric vehicles?