By David M. Greenwald
Sacramento, CA – A week after the state’s high court left in place restrictions on enrollment at UC Berkeley, legislators have introduced legislation to overturn the ruling.
AB 168 and SB 118 were introduced on Friday in response to the court decision. The bill would give higher education leaders 18 months to address CEQA-related issues before decisions impacting enrollment growth can be issued.
“An educated workforce is needed to keep the state’s economy growing, motivating the Legislature to bolster the number of college enrollment slots, especially for California residents,” Speaker Anthony Rendon and Assemblymember Phil Ting said on Friday.
“At the same time, we care deeply about CEQA. California’s environmental protections are vital to everyone, especially to those who care about environmental justice,” they said. “That’s something very important to those who live in both of our districts and means we cannot ignore the environmental impacts of growing campuses on surrounding communities.”
This bill would leave CEQA intact, but give universities time to address CEQA issues before the decisions impact enrollment growth.
“Our trailer bill strikes the right balance. It aims to make sure that environmental analysis of campus development plans continues to consider campus population impacts, while also giving higher education leaders a chance to remedy deficiencies before enrollment reduction mandates are issued. We believe this addresses concerns from both sides and allows us to continue educating deserving students,” they said.
“When our legislation passes and allows the law to be applied retroactively, UC Berkeley will be able to resume its enrollment plan, which was disrupted by a misguided court order,” they added.
Senator Nancy Skinner also praised the bill as a way to safeguard student enrollment at Berkeley while preserving “the requirement that long-range development plans of California’s public higher education campuses be fully reviewed for their environmental impacts.”
The legislation would address the court ruling but keep in place “existing law (that) mandates public higher education campuses to conduct an environmental review under the California Environmental Quality Act on all aspects of a campus long-range development plan, including student enrollment, the court action in the UC Berkeley case ruled that student enrollment, by itself, is subject to CEQA.”
“It was never the intent of the Legislature for students to be viewed as environmental pollutants,” said Senator Skinner who represents Berkeley. “This legislative agreement ensures that California environmental law does not treat student enrollment differently than any other component contained in our UC, CSU or Community College long-range development plans.”
Skinner’s office explained that the legislation “is designed to eliminate 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.”
“Jeopardizing the future of more than 2,600 students who earned a place at Cal is contrary to California’s longstanding priority to give more students, not fewer, the opportunity to benefit from our public universities and colleges,” Senator Skinner added.
It has been a longstanding policy of the state Legislature to expand access to public higher education. In fact, over the years, enrollment increases at California public colleges and universities have been the direct result of budget actions taken by the state.
In his amicus brief to the California Supreme Court last month, urging the high court to allow UC Berkeley to move forward with its fall 2022 enrollment plans, Governor Gavin Newsom noted that expanding college access is and has been “the keystone to California’s higher education vision.”
Senator Wiener last month introduced legislation to reduce CEQA review of student housing projects.
Last week in response to the court decision, he said, “It’s tragic that California allows courts and environmental laws to determine how many students UC Berkeley and other public colleges can educate. This ruling directly harms thousands of young people and robs them of so many opportunities. We must never allow this to happen again. We must change the law. And we will.”
On Friday, his office released a statement in support of this legislation.
“So many Californians, myself included, were horrified that our court system allowed NIMBYs to use California’s environmental laws to deprive thousands of students of an education at UC Berkeley,” Senator Wiener said.
“The Legislature will act quickly — with immediate effect — to ensure we can educate our young people and not turn them away,” the Senator added. “UC is a critical pathway to the middle class for so many young. Californians. We will not allow abuse of our environmental laws to undermine this critical opportunity.”
The legislature will move quickly on this. Both the Senate and Assembly budget committees have scheduled hearings for AB 168/SB 118 on Monday. If the committees approve the agreement, it will go to the full Assembly and Senate for consideration.
Because AB 168 and SB 118 are budget trailer bills, they will take effect immediately if signed by Governor Newsom.