Controversial Capitol annex project would be exempt from environmental law under new bill

By Nicole Nixon
The Sacramento Bee

California lawmakers plan to expedite construction for a $1.1 billion revamp of the state Capitol annex by exempting it from state environmental law.

The state began demolition last year on a historic building connected to the capitol which houses the offices of the governor, state lawmakers, and their legions of staff.

Courts have dinged the Department of General Services for failing to provide proper analysis of the project during its environmental review and for not providing the public an adequate chance to comment on its proposed design.

A new trailer bill would circumvent those hurdles by exempting the project from the California Environmental Quality Act, or CEQA, altogether.

“We have worked to meet the significant concerns about the project, and this now becomes the best option to protect California taxpayers,” leaders of the legislature’s Joint Committee on Rules, which oversees the project, wrote in a June 22 letter to legislative budget leaders.

The trailer bill, which was made public on Saturday, is part of a package that reflects details of a budget agreement struck between Gov. Gavin Newsom and state lawmakers. It is expected to be passed by both chambers of the legislature this week ahead of the final June 30 budget deadline.

It comes as the state faces a new deadline to halt construction on the project by mid-July as lawsuits continue in the case.

“(A)s a result of a new appellate court decision, we face the possibility of additional and much costlier delays,” the letter from Rules Chair Asm. Blanca Pacheco and Vice-Chair Sen. John Laird, continued. “If new delays due to litigation go into effect, we estimate nearly $5 million a month for what could be half a year.”

An earlier court-ordered construction halt cost between $13 and $20 million, according to the letter.

“We listened to opponents’ comments and tried to meet their concerns by downsizing the parking garage and offering not to build a new visitor center on the West steps. And yet meeting their key demands has not settled the matter,” the letter continued.

Opponents of the project criticized the new bill as an attempt to circumvent court orders.

“It’s almost as if the legislature is saying, ‘We don’t want to follow the appeals court ruling and so we’re just going to take this out of the hands of the appeals court,’” said Dick Cowan, a former chair of the Historic State Capitol Commission and spokesman for a group behind the annex’s legal challenges. “There still has not been adequate environmental review here.”

Asm. Josh Hoover, R-Folsom said he worried the trailer bill will be used to expedite a new underground visitor’s center on the Capitol’s west side. He has criticized that aspect of the project, fearing it would make a popular space for protests and other civic gatherings smaller and less accessible.

“The annex no longer exists, so they’re going to be rebuilding it one way or another,” Hoover told The Sacramento Bee Monday. “But I want commitments from legislative leadership that they’re not going to move forward with the visitor’s center.”

“If this bill passes, it probably makes it easier for DGS and the Rules Committee but it also reduces the public’s voice,” he said.

So far roughly $400 million has been spent on annex design and construction, according to the Department of Finance.

The bill would also spend $700 million over three years to fund the project. Spokespeople for the California Department of Finance and Sen. Laird confirmed that funding had previously been appropriated, but is being spread over three years going forward.

Read more in The Sacramento Bee.