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Wal-Mart Loses Backroom Lobbying Effort in California

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Sacramento, CA-- Despite spending more than $246,750 on a Sacramento, California lobbying firm, Wal-Mart lost a major environmental 'rollback' bill in the California legislature this week.

The giant retailer was pushing legislation that came to be known as "the Wal-Mart bill," a measure which would have exempted big box stores up to 120,000 square feet in recycled buildings from the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) -- one of the few state laws that local citizens depend upon when fighting unwanted retail projects.

According to an analysis by the California Senate Rules Committee, Assembly Bill 1581 would have exempted the alteration of a vacant retail structure from CEQA if the structure existed prior to January 1, 2008, and was not more than 120,000 square feet in area, and met certain other requirements.

Reporter Karen de Sa of the San Jose Mercury News described A.B. 1581 as "the latest example of how outside sponsors have managed to hijack the legislative process."

But this time the hijacking failed.

The Mercury News quoted one California lawmaker as saying the Wal-Mart bill was "absurd," sending a message that "CEQA is now for sale, that anyone who can afford to hire a team of lobbyists and grease the wheels in the legislative can have their own special exception to our most important environmental law."

The Wal-Mart bill was cosponsored by the California Retailers Association, which often shills for big box retailers -- to the detriment of smaller merchants. Its sponsor was Assemblywoman Norma Torres, D-Ontario. A.B. 1581, would permit retailers moving into empty space up to 120,000 square feet to completely by-pass the CEQA public review process which big chain stores loath -- because it costs them time and money to comply with the impact studies required under the state law.

Under A.B. 1581, projects would only have to meet local zoning laws, which are often weak on environmental concerns. The Wal-Mart bill would have silenced citizens' groups by closing down any legal appeal rights. In effect, Wal-Mart projects as big as two football fields would have been given special handling. The bill would have lasted for three years -- giving companies like Wal-Mart, Home Depot, Target, Lowe's and Costco plenty of opportunities to saturate markets already choking on retail.

One legislative staffer told the Mercury News the bill would leave local taxpayers stuck with the bill for any environmental damage caused by these projects, because the developers would face no threat of legal action or mitigation requirements.

What Wal-Mart and the Retailers Association did was hover in the background over this bill, until about 10 days before the end of the legislative session. On the final day to amend legislation, the Retailers sprung out of the lobbyist's woodwork as the new sponsor of the measure, which was totally amended by adding the new exemption language unrelated to the original legislation. This move effectively gave lawmakers no chance to debate the amendment on its merits. Wal-Mart told the Mercury News it supported the bill because it would "help boost the local economy and create jobs."

Wal-Mart knows a thing or two about empty buildings. Since 1995, the company has abandoned well over 1,000 of its discount stores, leaving behind what the media refers to as "ghost boxes." Wal-Mart Realty currently is selling 680,846 square feet of ghost boxes at five California locations. If lawmakers in Sacramento want to see the wastefulness of this corporation, there are two dark stores right in Sacramento: a 133,613 square foot dead store on Florin Road, and a 134,700 square foot dead store on North Freeway Boulevard. The latter store is three years old, the one of Florin Road is 9 years old.

If Wal-Mart has such a penchant for used buildings, lawmakers should tell them to stop abandoning their stores that are already in the ground, rather than trying to cut environmental corners elsewhere.

These dead stores become blighted very quickly, and it is in the public interest to see them reoccupied. But Wal-Mart---the all-time retail leader in Dead Stores---is hardly the special interest to be pushing a bill that deals with empty buildings.

It's not surprising that Wal-Mart would be behind a last minute cabal to slip a bill onto the Governor's desk through a lobbying intrigue. What is surprising is that they failed, and that Wal-Mart's environmental rollback was rolled back.

No doubt the bill will be refiled next session, and Wal-Mart will continue its policy of shutting down stores that still have many years of useful life in them. Wal-Mart Realty apparently has not heard about the company's sustainability marketing campaign.

For anyone who wants to own a dead Wal-Mart, one of the empty buildings in Sacramento is selling for $7.5 million---but you'll have to pass through the California Environmental Quality Act first.

Al Norman is the founder of Sprawl-Busters, and has been described by The Wall Street Journal as a 'one man anti-Wal-Mart cottage industry." He is the author of The Case Against Wal-Mart.