SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) – In an effort to thwart President Donald Trump’s campaign promise to reduce or eliminate environmental regulations that some Republicans believe stifle business, California Democrats advanced a bill to lock in federal standards as they existed on the day before Trump took office.
The measure, authored by state Senate President Pro Tem Kevin De Leon, D- Los Angeles, has met with fierce opposition from the California Chamber of Commerce, development groups and farmers over fears that the unintended consequences of the bill could expose state agencies to litigation and will prevent flexibility in future policy decisions.
Senate Bill 49 passed in the Assembly’s natural resources committee Monday and in the judiciary committee on Tuesday, where a number of amendments and technical changes were made in an effort to shape the bill to legal standards and assuage opposition.
State Sen. Henry Stern said the measure is akin to the state flexing its federalist muscles and filling gaps left by the federal government. Stern presented the bill on behalf of De Leon.
“I think the state has a duty to act in the interest of its people and the health and safety of its environment,” Stern said. “The bill would make those federal baseline standards enforceable as state law. I think what is critical here is that we can’t afford to go backward.”
The bill touches on several aspects of federal law including environmental, public health and workers’ rights, leading opponents to call the measure overbroad. Stern argued the bill touches on these topics because of the impact of environmental regulations on public safety.
“The interrelation between a worker exposed to a toxic substance in the workplace or a kid trying to get to school on a school bus being exposed to air pollution, or even the degradation of a species, it all impacts the health and safety of Californians,” Stern said.
Caitlin Baker of the California Labor Federation said the law is necessary to protect workers because federal baseline standards are under attack by Trump.
“What we have seen over the last couple of months is a very concerted and highly effective effort to roll back health and safety standards,” Baker said. “The goal of this bill is not to enhance protections workers have now, but to hold them in place.”
Louinda Lacey, representing the California Chamber of Commerce, said the amendments did not remove opposition to the measure.
“We believe this bill violates the California Constitution by trying to use a common legislative purpose to conjure up multiple subjects into one subject,” Lacey said. “The amendments provide broad and sweeping discretion to the agencies which we believe would be an unlawful delegation of legislative power.”
As an example of the overbroad language of the bill, Lacey said that though the bill has been referred to three committees, not one has power to address the regulation of the Endangered Species Act as included in the measure.
Lacey said the language of the bill will create uncertainty for businesses, as there is no standard for when and what regulations each agency will lock in place.
“We have significant concern with regard to the agency being delegated broad discretion and also being able to circumvent the Administrative Procedure Act,” Lacey added. “We are further concerned that the agencies’ discretion would be the trigger to give rise to private rights of action under California law.”
Private rights of action are essential components of federal environmental, health and worker-safety laws that allow private citizens to sue agencies that fail to meet legal standards in the event the state or federal government does not act.
Referring to recent studies that show releasing billions of gallons of water into the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta has not helped wildlife, Lacey said this bill could prevent the state from adjusting policy in the future and open state agencies to litigation, as changes could be viewed as backsliding.
Lacey added that California has established higher standards than the federal government to protect the environment and worker safety, making the bill largely unnecessary.
Assembly Judiciary Committee chair David Stone, D-Monterey Bay, said the bill is pre-emptive because of unpredictability at the federal level.
“It is complex to navigate how many myriad attacks are going to be coming on state environmental laws,” Stone said. “It requires that kind of comprehensive response.”
Stone said that the bill creates a needed framework for state agencies to establish standards.
“The key is that they (agencies) need to do the assessment and figure out what the next steps are and then act,” he said. “We are keeping our standards as high as possible when we are in a situation where we can no longer rely on the federal government to set those standards.”
He said there is no other mechanism for state agencies to keep high baseline standards.
Assemblywoman Eloise Gomez Reyes, D-San Bernardino, who voted for the bill, validated some of the opposition’s arguments.
“I would ask that you continue to work with the opposition to alleviate some of their concerns, especially as to future projects and the potential increase in litigation,” Reyes said. “Those are two areas that for me would be of concern.”
The bill next heads to the Assembly’s appropriations committee.