California’s Middle Class Faces Slow Death By Green Laws
An environmental law in California, designed with the best of intentions of course, has helped wreck middle class prospects—and state lawmakers are finally taking note.
The California Environmental Quality Act, signed into law by Ronald Reagan in 1970 and beloved by environmental groups, mandates strenuous reviews of the environmental effects of all proposed construction projects. While greens have claimed that the law has protected California’s natural beauty from rapacious developers, lawmakers are coming around to the viewpoint that it has been abused to the detriment of citizens, as the New York Times reports:
With the Legislature moving toward adjournment this week, prospects of weakening the law…seem stronger than in recent memory, lawmakers said. [Governor Jerry] Brown called rewriting the law “the Lord’s work,” and the effort has won widespread support from newspaper editorial boards. […]
“Frankly, it’s become a blunt instrument to stop projects by so many different people,” said Bob Huff, the Senate Republican leader. “Labor uses it as a way to get project-labor agreements. Lawyers use it a way to send their kids to college and build vacation homes.”
State Senator Darrell Steinberg (D) has introduced a bill to make major changes to the law. So far labor and environmental groups are supporting the changes, but business leaders are saying it doesn’t go far enough to pare down ruinous regulations.
The problem with the law isn’t just that labor unions and lawyers abuse it; it also that it elevates the interests of environmentalists far above the needs of the middle class. In this, it joins a slew of unbalanced laws and regulations that are strangling California’s economy and turning the state that gave birth to the 20th century’s version of the American middle class dream into a nightmarish landscape of super rich movie stars and tech magnates, on the one hand, and low income, low education hangers-on, on the other. In much of the state, the old middle class survives only through a core of government employees whose livelihoods and pensions grow increasingly insecure as the tax base continues to erode.
One key to reversing the grim slide is land development. Much as elite greens hate the idea, allowing enough construction so that ordinary working families can afford to buy homes is one way to grow a middle class. Environmental overreach not only slows the state’s growth; it blocks the construction jobs that less-skilled workers need, and it keeps the middle and lower middle class from accumulating home equity.
Dialing back unsustainable green laws is one way to free up land for development, but it’s only the first step California needs to take before it can return to being not just a playground for the rich but a paradise for ordinary Americans as well.