In summary

Democrats may carve out another exemption to CEQA, the landmark California environmental law, after a ruling on UC Berkeley enrollment.

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California, a state often described as a leader in climate policy, appears poised to carve out yet another exemption in its landmark environmental protection law.

That’s because the law — the California Environmental Quality Act, better known as CEQA — is getting in the way of another one of the state’s goals: Increasing the number of students — especially those from the Golden State — at its premier public university system, the University of California.

The issue came to a head Thursday, when the California Supreme Court in a 4-2 decision refused to strike down a lower court order directing UC Berkeley to slash its fall enrollment by as many as 3,050 students, CalMatters’ Mikhail Zinshteyn reports. The decision was a win for Save Berkeley’s Neighborhoods, which said UC Berkeley violated CEQA by failing to build enough housing for its growing student population — straining city services and worsening homelessness, traffic and noise.

  • The legal battle, however, is far from over — and UC Berkeley said it plans to enroll many of those 3,050 students through a combination of online classes and deferred enrollment in the spring.

Gov. Gavin Newsom, who had personally urged the California Supreme Court to block UC Berkeley’s enrollment cap, slammed the decision on Twitter.

  • Newsom: “This is against everything we stand for — new pathways to success, attracting tomorrow’s leaders, making college more affordable. UC’s incoming freshman class is the most diverse ever but now thousands of dreams will be dashed to keep a failing status quo.”

State Sen. Scott Wiener, a San Francisco Democrat who recently introduced a bill to exempt certain campus housing projects from CEQA, had similarly choice words.

  • Wiener: “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.”

Other Democratic lawmakers showed similar signs of urgency: “We’re on the case and aware of the deadlines,” Assemblymember Kevin McCarty of Sacramento told Mikhail. Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon of Lakewood said he had conferred with UC President Michael Drake and “we will work together to help students.”

CEQA, however, has long been a bogeyman for Republicans, with GOP candidates in last year’s gubernatorial recall election blaming the environmental law for California’s housing crisis.

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1. Newsom unveils new mental health plan

Governor Gavin Newsom at press conference on the next phase of the state’s pandemic response on Feb. 17, 2022. Photo by Alisha Jucevic for CalMatters
Gov. Gavin Newsom holds a press conference on Feb. 17, 2022. Photo by Alisha Jucevic for CalMatters

Californians with serious mental illnesses and substance use disorders — including but not limited to those who are homeless — could be compelled into treatment by courts and offered supportive housing and wraparound services under a long-awaited proposal Newsom unveiled Thursday. The plan, called CARE Court, would mandate all 58 counties participate — unlike another program, Laura’s Law, that requires counties to opt in before families can access legal tools to force their severely mentally ill relatives into treatment, CalMatters’ Jocelyn Wiener reports. But many aspects of CARE Court — which at this point is little more than a policy framework and would need legislative approval in order to become law — remain unclear.

Indeed, other bold Newsom proposals have yet to achieve their stated goals, according to a Thursday investigation from Kaiser Health News that found some of the governor’s “ambitious ideas — such as requiring California to make its own insulin and forging drug partnerships across state lines — have failed to get off the ground or haven’t produced the hefty savings he promised.”

Meanwhile, California stands to gain $486 million to fund opioid addiction and treatment if a court approves a nationwide $6 billion settlement with Purdue Pharma and its founding family, the Sacklers, for causing the country’s opioid crisis, Attorney General Rob Bonta said Thursday.

2. Housing remains top challenge

Tenants and housing rights activists protest for a halting of rent payments and mortgage debt the COVID-19 pandemic in Los Angeles on October 1, 2020. Photo by Lucy Nicholson, Reuters
Tenants and housing rights activists protest to halt rent payments and mortgage debt in Los Angeles on Oct. 1, 2020. Photo by Lucy Nicholson, Reuters

Newsom’s CARE Court proposal was met with skepticism from some groups who thought it overlooked the fundamental problem underlying California’s homelessness crisis: “The core issue is a lack of suitable housing for those who need it most. Until there’s enough housing, programs like CARE Court will have limited success,” said Graham Knaus, executive director of the California State Association of Counties.

The state’s struggle to keep Californians in their homes — and to build more housing — were made clear in two new reports:

  • Only 16% of the nearly half a million renters who applied for pandemic rent relief from the state of California have been paid, according to a Thursday analysis — and state law will permit landlords to evict tenants who failed to pay rent by April 1, CalMatters’ Manuela Tobias reports. The study also found that rent relief applicants waited an average of more than three months to get approved, and another month to get paid — or 135 days total. The state disputes the study’s findings.
  • Shanti Singh, legislative and communications director for Tenants Together: “There’s I think a lack of understanding in the Legislature that people become homeless after they’re evicted from their homes.”
  • Meanwhile, the state’s own affordable housing roadmap, released Wednesday, underscores the challenge in constructing new homes: The report calls on California to plan for more than 2.5 million homes by 2030 — a significant watering down of Newsom’s campaign pledge to build 3.5 million homes by 2025.

3. CA seeks to expand abortion providers

A view of a Planned Parenthood Health Center in Sacramento on Feb. 2, 2022. Photo by Carlos Barria, REUTERS
A view of a Planned Parenthood Health Center in Sacramento on Feb. 2, 2022. Photo by Carlos Barria, Reuters

Some California nurse practitioners would be able to perform first-trimester abortions without a doctor’s supervision under a bill introduced Thursday by Senate Pro Tem Toni Atkins, a San Diego Democrat. The measure is the latest addition to a package of bills spearheaded by the all-Democratic Legislative Women’s Caucus that aims to expand abortion access as California prepares for an influx of patients should the U.S. Supreme Court overturn Roe v. Wade this summer and strike down the 49-year-old constitutional right to an abortion.

  • Atkins: “As states like Texas and others start to further restrict abortion, it just makes sense that women are going to find other places to go. California will be one of those states.”

As CalMatters’ Alexei Koseff reports, Atkins also said she expects there will be legislation to set up a public-private fund to help pay for women to travel to California for abortions — one of the recommendations from the California Future of Abortion Council, which Newsom convened last year after Texas passed a law banning the procedure after about six weeks of pregnancy.

But health care coverage could be shrinking in other ways: Millions of Californians could lose or transition into new health coverage — some as soon as this summer — with two federal programs that helped many keep or afford insurance set to expire this year, CalMatters’ Ana B. Ibarra reports. But advocates hope Congress will be motivated to act before then:

CalMatters commentary

UC Berkeley case foreshadows serious consequences: It for the first time treats enrollment as a “project” that must be analyzed under CEQA, which could significantly harm California’s attempts to increase the educated workforce needed to support the economy, write Mel Levine and Dick Ackerman, co-chairs of the California Coalition for Public Higher Education.

The problem with Kaiser’s secret Medi-Cal deal with the state: It sidesteps the bigger issue – the chronic underfunding of Medi-Cal – and leaves other public and commercial plans holding the bag, argues John Baackes, CEO of the L.A. Care Health Plan.

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See you Monday.

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Emily Hoeven wrote the daily WhatMatters newsletter for three years at CalMatters . Her reporting, essays, and opinion columns have been published in San Francisco Weekly, the Deseret News, the San Francisco...