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CEQA And Vetocracy

Stanford political scientist Francis Fukuyama is known for research on democracy and tyranny around the world, and his much-debated 1989 article “The End of History?”. Today, he has a new focus: The California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). Next to the rise and fall of nations, a state environmental law might seem like small potatoes. Yet California, with the fifth largest economy in the world, is not just another state. And CEQA is not just another environmental law. CEQA is exemplary of a new governance phenomenon: What Fukuyama calls a “vetocracy”, in which so many parties can prevent action that a community becomes unable to address basic governance functions. Process overwhelms outcomes. CEQA was designed to ensure environmental review, but any individual and interest group in California can leverage CEQA to advance their own special interest. Business competitors, industry groups, and labor unions use CEQA to kill projects they don’t like or to extract concessions from the process. All of this can be done from the shadows, as CEQA allows parties to remain anonymous. At the 21st Century Alliance, we’re concerned with three things: more housing, better schools, and smarter government. The last two decades have shown that we cannot build the housing we need while laws like CEQA are misused by special interests to derail and delay smart, thoughtful housing projects. The way forward involves a modest set of proposals proposed by CEQA experts Jennifer Hernandez and David Friedman:

  1. Requiring those filing CEQA lawsuits to disclose their identity and environmental (or non-environmental) interests.

  2. Eliminating duplicative lawsuits.

  3. Restricting judicial invalidation of project approvals to those projects that would harm public health, destroy irreplaceable tribal resources or threaten the ecology.

We would do well to take seriously the concerns of Francis Fukuyama and his colleague political scientists about California’s trajectory. Authoritarians the world over, hoping for the failure of democracy, look to California. Thoughtful reforms to CEQA would go a long way to dashing those hopes.

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