By David M. Greenwald
Sacramento, CA – With the State Supreme Court unwilling to overturn a lower court ruling, the legislature, in a rare move that was speedy and unanimous, quickly provided relief to allow students admitted to UC Berkeley to enroll. The governor immediately signed the legislation.
“A recent court order could have forced UC Berkeley to shut the door on thousands of potential college freshmen and transfer students, disproportionately impacting students from disadvantaged or underrepresented backgrounds,” the governor’s office said on Monday.
“I’m grateful to the Legislature for moving quickly on this critical issue—it sends a clear signal that California won’t let lawsuits get in the way of the education and dreams of thousands of students, our future leaders and innovators,” said Governor Newsom.
The governor signed SB 118, which will ensure “that student enrollment at a college campus is not singled out as a project under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), while preserving requirements that campus long-range development plans are comprehensively reviewed for environmental impacts.”
“Today, the Legislature acted unanimously and passed SB 118, upholding our longstanding priority to provide more students, not fewer, the life-changing benefit of higher education,” said Senator Nancy Skinner who represents Berkeley in the State Senate.
“Students were never intended to be considered pollution. SB 118 ensures that California environmental law does not treat student enrollment differently than the any other activity in our UC, CSU, or Community College long-range development plans.”
SB 118 won approval in the state Assembly on a 69-0 vote, and passed the state Senate on a vote of 33-0.
According to Skinner’s office, “SB 118 addresses the recent unprecedented court ruling that ordered UC Berkeley to slash enrollment this fall by more than 2,600 students.”
SB 118 eliminates the need for UC Berkeley to slash enrollment this fall, by rendering unenforceable any current court injunction that orders a freeze or a reduction of student enrollment, including the injunction affecting UC Berkeley.
Under SB 118, California’s public college and university campuses will still have to conduct a CEQA review of their long-range development plans and the impacts of a campus’ planned overall population increase, including for its faculty, administrators, students and staff. But a campus would not have to do a CEQA review solely because of a student enrollment increase.
Toni Atkins, the Senate Leader, pointed out, “SB 118 is not only an example of the Legislature acting quickly to ensure that our students’ needs were put ahead of a narrow set of interests, but also highlights Senator Skinner’s leadership.”
She noted, “Earlier this month, we were presented with the immense challenge of how to help more than 2,600 prospective UC Berkeley students secure a spot at the university, given the court-ordered enrollment freeze due to a misguided lawsuit. Today, thanks to the fierce dedication of Senator Nancy Skinner, we were able to vote on a solution.”
Senator Scott Wiener was also appreciative as he saw SB 118 as a means to prevent “abuse of the (CEQA) when it forces public schools, including UC Berkeley, to cut enrollment.
“The NIMBY lawsuit that led to an arbitrary UC Berkeley enrollment cap will make it harder for thousands of California young people to get an education and enter the middle class,” said Senator Wiener, who represents San Francisco and has been a fierce advocate for housing for students and others. “The triage legislation we passed today will solve that immediate problem. But it’s not enough just to solve this immediate problem; we need to ask ourselves how we got here.”
The senator added, “What happened at UC Berkeley happens every day in the state of California. Not in ways that generate national headlines, but in much smaller ways that deeply harm our state.”
Senator Wiener, who has also sponsored legislation that would reform CEQA, remains critical of the seminal law.
“In many ways, CEQA is the law that swallowed California,” he said. “In addition to CEQA being used to arbitrarily cap UC enrollment, CEQA has been used to stop or delay bike lanes. It’s been used to stop or delay trains and other public transportation. It’s been used to stop clean energy projects. It’s been used to stop apartment buildings right next to major train stations.”
The senator added, “What do all of those projects have in common? They’re all good for the environment. They all help reverse carbon emissions. And yet CEQA is regularly used to stop or delay climate-friendly projects.”
He quickly added, “CEQA is an important law. I don’t agree with the people who think it needs to be repealed. But I do agree that it needs to be changed so it actually achieves climate action rather than impeding climate action by giving anyone with enough money to hire a lawyer the power to delay or kill environmentally sustainable projects.”
But he said, “When it comes to CEQA, this UC Berkeley trainwreck isn’t a bug. It’s a feature.”
Mayor Jesse Arreguin was grateful for the state officials.
“Through this action, the State has made it abundantly clear how important the need for access to higher education is for the future of California,” Mayor Arreguin said. “UC Berkeley is an incubator of ingenuity. By enabling our growing, diverse population access to a world-class education, we will be in a better position to tap into the potential of the next generation to solve the issues we face today.”
UC President Michael Drake added, “Today’s action by the state Legislature affirms the University of California’s obligations under CEQA while also safeguarding the bright futures of thousands of hardworking prospective UC Berkeley students.”
“The University shares our campus neighbors’ desire to undertake growth in a way that respects the surrounding community and mitigates impacts on the environment,” Drake said. “We believe this bill provides a clearer, more transparent and more predictable process for analyzing and managing the environmental impact of campus populations under CEQA while also ensuring students are not harmed because of ongoing policy disagreements.”