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Schwarzenegger upsets environmental allies

California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is feeling heat from a group that has been among his staunchest allies: environmentalists.
State Budget
California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger shows off the sword he used in the movie "Conan The Barbarian" to state lawmakers in Sacramento on Tuesday. Schwarzenegger joked that the he would use it to cut the budget deficit.Rich Pedroncelli / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Like any head of state managing a severe budget crisis, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has withstood criticism from all the usual suspects — lawmakers from both parties, anti-tax groups, advocates for the poor.

Now he's feeling heat from a group that has been among his staunchest allies: environmentalists.

As Schwarzenegger and lawmakers struggle to contain a ballooning deficit, he has insisted that any budget deal include a provision suspending state environmental review for certain public works projects.

The governor said that would fast-track infrastructure projects and put Californians back to work quickly. He said his proposal would accelerate construction on 10 road projects around the state, noting at a recent news conference: "It's about jobs, jobs, jobs."

His demand has been one of the main sticking points in budget negotiations that so far have failed to produce a solution to the state's deficit, despite three special legislative sessions. California's shortfall is expected to reach nearly $42 billion by June 2010 unless lawmakers act to close it.

Last week, Schwarzenegger vetoed a Democratic budget proposal, in part because it lacked the environmental rollbacks he and many in the business community desire.

Schwarzenegger also has asked President-elect Barack Obama to exempt road construction from key federal environmental reviews as part any congressional economic stimulus package.

Democrats who oppose the scope of the governor's demand contend the projects exempted from environmental review would fail to boost the economy quickly, while environmentalists are outright puzzled by his position. They have considered Schwarzenegger an ally because of his crusades against global climate change and his advocacy of alternative energy.

"The demand by the governor to do an end-run in environmental laws just flies in the face of his environmental agenda," said Ann Notthoff, California advocacy director at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

The governor's spokesman, Aaron McLear, said Schwarzenegger has earned his reputation as a defender of the environment.

"To suggest he is anything less than one of the most passionate protectors of the environment is laughable," McLear said.

Two of the freeway projects Schwarzenegger wants to fast-track through environmental exemptions have been the subject of legal battles over air pollution concerns.

One is a freeway expansion in the Sacramento area that was blocked last year by a judge because the state failed to analyze the potential effects of the added lanes on greenhouse gas emissions. Schwarzenegger's budget proposal would override the judge's ruling.

Tom Adams, president of the California League of Conservation Voters, said the governor should not try to subvert long-standing practices for reviewing public works projects.

"We have created a separate branch of government so these disputes are decided on the facts and the law in a way that's isolated from the political process," he said. "It's completely inappropriate for the administration to go to the political branch and have them start meddling in a lawsuit."

Schwarzenegger has argued that if he and lawmakers raise state taxes, they must also employ an economic stimulus to jump-start job growth.

California's unemployment rate, at 8.4 percent, is among the highest in the nation. He and other Republicans say the state's economy will deteriorate further if the government doesn't take swift action, including faster work on road projects.

"We want to build the roads in the next two or three months without any delays of red tape and environmental holding back and lawsuits that hold you up for another two, three years," Schwarzenegger said.

Exempting the projects from the California Environmental Quality Act would accelerate construction timetables from five months to a year and put roughly 21,000 people to work earlier, said Will Kempton, director of the California Department of Transportation.

The administration also wants to speed permitting for the projects and create a special panel of cabinet members that could override or modify environmental conditions imposed by wildlife agencies or air pollution regulators.

Without those changes, most of the projects wouldn't start until 2010, Kempton said.

The Legislature has authorized environmental exemptions for levee projects in the past, but Democrats warn that what Schwarzenegger is seeking would set a harmful legal precedent and do little to solve the state's long-term financial crisis.

"We are not willing to say that a member of the public has no opportunity to challenge the environmental finding of a state agency," said Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento.