AEG's bill clears first of several hurdles

The California State Assembly Committees on Natural Resources and on Appropriations both voted in favor of Senate Bill 292, the bill to expedite legal challenges to Farmers Field, Anschutz Entertainment Group's $1.2 billion proposed football stadium in downtown Los Angeles.

It was the first of several hurdles the bill must clear over the next three days before Friday's deadline for action on bills when Sacramento lawmakers will break for recess.

Senator Alex Padilla, who authored the bill, introduced the legislation last week and on Tuesday spoke to the California State Assembly Committee on Natural Resources, which voted 5-1 in favor of the bill, and later to the California State Assembly Committee on Appropriations, which voted 12-1 in favor of the bill.

"The ball is in our possession and we're beginning to march down the field," Padilla said. "We got a couple of big first downs today. The next step will be tomorrow when the full assembly votes on the bill and if they vote to move the bill out of assembly, which we expect them to, that's basically taking the ball past the 50-yard line and then we're marching towards the red zone and hopefully in the end zone by the end of the week."

For the bill to be moved out of the assembly, a simple majority of the 80-member assembly is needed, although Padilla believes there will be far more than 41 members voting to support the bill.

"The way this bill is growing in popularity, it's enjoying support from both Republicans and Democrats and legislators from different parts of the state," Padilla said. "This is not just a Los Angeles-only bill."

After moving out of the assembly the bill must then go through a senate policy committee and a senate appropriations committee, just like the two committees it went through on the assembly side, before the full senate votes on it on Friday. California governor Jerry Brown then has 30 days to either sign or veto the bill. If he does not sign it, the bill becomes law anyway. After Tuesday's meetings and discussions with other lawmakers, Padilla expects the bill to be passed and become a law soon enough, keeping Farmers Field on track for a potential June 2012 groundbreaking.

"I think we've crafted a bill in a well-balanced way and we're not compromising any California environmental laws," Padilla said. "There is no public subsidy here. There is someone in Los Angeles willing to put over $1 billion of their own money in this proposal. If it is approved and the NFL decides to move a team here it will put 10,000 people at work during construction alone. Once that's done and the convention center is done there is another 10,000 permanent jobs on the tail end of that. This opportunity is huge."

Almost as big as the bill making it out of committee and onto the assembly floor was the support it received from the Natural Resources Defense Council and the California League of Conservation Voters on Tuesday.

After the bill was introduced on Friday, David Pettit, senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, issued a pointed statement, calling the bill a "weak, last-minute, back-room deal" and a "missed opportunity for Los Angeles and a dangerous precedent for California" that "can and should be fixed."

On Tuesday, Pettit, after meeting with assembly speaker John A. Pérez and Padilla, praised the project as he stood in front of the California State Assembly Committee on Natural Resources and supported the bill along with Warner Chabot, CEO of the California League of Conservation Voters.

"We are totally on the same page now," Pettit said. "I think this is a great project, it's in the perfect location and you'll be able to take public transit. I was a Rams fan as a kid and I can't wait to have football back in Los Angeles. I made some very critical remarks about the first draft of the bill that I have taken a lot of heat for but I've worked closely with the speaker's office in innumerable calls and meetings and I think now we're at a place that's way better than we first started."

The bill, which includes no exemption from environmental laws, would allow legal challenges to the stadium's environmental impact report to be heard immediately in the California Court of Appeal, which would then come to a decision within 175 days. The expedited process would bypass the Superior Court and avoid the protracted litigation AEG has been fearful of.

In exchange, AEG has pledged to build a carbon-neutral stadium with more public transit users than any other stadium in the country and have committed to making Farmers Field one of the only stadiums in the country to have a net-zero carbon footprint.

Pettit said he came around to supporting the bill after convincing Perez and Padilla to adjust a few aspects of it, which would make it more acceptable to environmentalists and politicians alike.

"There were discussions all through the holiday weekend and there were three main things we wanted that I had been critical of in the past and we got commitments on all three of them," said Pettit, who was still working on the new provisions in the bill moments before endorsing it. "We got stronger mitigation, we got longer-lasting mitigation for the life of the project, not just for the first ten years, and we got rid of the opt-out provision. There were these opt-out provisions in the bill where AEG could take their ball and go home if they thought they were going to lose in court.

"They could opt out and go back to the normal process and go to the Superior Court. If they did that they weren't bound by the special protections they agreed to in the bill. That had to come out and it is now gone."

A competing stadium proposal in the City of Industry has been "shovel-ready" for two years after developer Ed Roski secured an exemption to the California Environmental Quality Act in 2009. The ruling exempts the Industry project from state environmental laws and protects it from environmental lawsuits. Legislators were roundly criticized for passing the exemption, making it virtually impossible for AEG to secure a similar deal for their stadium proposal.

"We are not asking for an exemption," AEG president and CEO Tim Leiweke said. "We are going to do a full EIR. It will be the best EIR ever done in downtown Los Angeles and we are halfway through it. We are committed to building the most environmentally friendly stadium ever built."

Although the bill seems to have the support of most legislators in Los Angeles, the real battle will be convincing lawmakers to the north and south, which will not be easy considering the two teams most commonly linked to a move to Los Angeles if the stadium is built are the San Diego Chargers and Oakland Raiders. The San Francisco 49ers, currently trying to secure financing for a new stadium, have also been mentioned.

The topic came up during the California State Assembly Committee on Natural Resources hearing when assembly member Jared Huffman, whose district represents Marin County and Sonoma County in Northern California, was more interested in including provisions that would prevent the proposed stadium from being the future home of a current NFL team in California than any environmental laws.

"My concern is if one of the existing franchises in another part of California is the one that picks up sticks and moves to this wonderful new stadium, it's probably fair to say then we are not creating new jobs in California, we are just relocating jobs," Huffman said. "If you wanted to put us at ease, those of us who are not LA-centric in our NFL support, it would be possible to have a provision that says none of this happens if it's a California franchise. ... I'm not sure why that's an unreasonable condition."

Padilla said the bill was not intended to dictate which NFL team can or can't come to Los Angeles and it would be wrong for lawmakers to put such restrictions on a city and a privately-financed project which would create thousands of new jobs.

With the NFL unwilling to expand its 32-team league anytime soon and with San Diego, Oakland and San Francisco playing in the three oldest stadiums in the league, it is highly likely Los Angeles' next NFL team would come from their neighbors to the north or south. This is not lost on many lawmakers in San Diego, Oakland and San Francisco who don't want to use public funds to finance a new stadium in their backyard but also don't want to lose their team to a privately financed stadium in Los Angeles.

"This has been a hurdle since Friday but we continue to remind everyone that only the NFL decides which teams will move where," Padilla said. "That's not our role here. It's important to remember that unlike other sports stadium and arena conversations we've heard of, this project is completely privately financed. Those legislators in San Diego, Oakland and San Francisco should work with their local partners to try to find a private investment facility of their own but thus far we haven't heard that from them."

Arash Markazi is a columnist and reporter for ESPNLosAngeles.com.