Despite strong momentum and an air of inevitability, California state legislators hit a major snag on Aug. 27 in their plans for a statewide ban on single-use plastic shopping bags.
It was a rebuke for SB270, introduced by state Sen. Alex Padilla, D-Pacoima. Despite a last-ditch effort to amend the bill, it lost the support of Democrats wary of slipping a divisive bill through the Legislature in an election year.
But the concerns of Democratic freshmen and relative environmental moderates weren’t to blame for the initial loss of support that propelled SB270 to a floor vote. In a surprise twist of interest-group politics, the grocery store workers’ union balked at the bill’s proposal to charge customers 10 cents for paper or legally sanctioned reusable plastic bags.
The bill got 38 votes for and 33 against, but that did not meet the 41-vote threshold to pass.
At first blush, it might have seemed that grocery workers would embrace the provision, which Republicans slammed as a gravy train for a big, politically connected business interests. After all, the California Grocers Association decided to throw its weight behind SB270 once Padilla ensured that the grocery business would keep the proceeds of the 10-cent levies.
But as the Los Angeles Times reported, the United Food and Commercial Workers Western States Council grew convinced SB270 would enrich grocery corporations alone, not workers, local stores or surrounding communities. The 10-cent fees add up. If a family uses just three bags a day, the tally comes to more than $100 a year, money that could go to more food, clothing or a kid’s schoolbook.
That led Padilla to throw together his late amendment, which would earmark the 10-cent fees for costs incurred by the new regulagtion.
Padilla also tried to calm bag manufacturers’ nerves by including changeover loans in his bill. According to SB270′s language:
“[$2 million] is hereby appropriated from the Recycling Market Development Revolving Loan Subaccount in the Integrated Waste Management Account to the department for the purposes of providing loans for the creation and retention of jobs and economic activity in this state for the manufacture and recycling of plastic reusable grocery bags that use recycled content, including postconsumer recycled material.”
Basically the state would let bag manufacturers borrow cheap money to make as seamless as possible a production and employment switch from single-use to thicker, multi-use plastic bags.
A change in momentum
Supporters of the bag ban pointed to the success of similar plastic bag bans at the municipal level. Over 100 counties or cities, including Los Angeles and San Francisco, have passed regulations prohibiting the convenient sacks. The failure of a statewide measure in California follows on the heels of unsuccessful legislative efforts in Massachusetts and Washington.
The inability of plastic bag bans to scale upward to the state level reflects the power of suburban and rural interests, which often are different from those in large cities. California Democrats representing lower-income and Central Valley voters held back from casting their ballots for Padilla’s bill, as CBS Sacramento observed; Assemblyman Adam Gray, D-Merced, called SB270 a departure from California’s “long history of policy around food affordability and availability.”
What’s more, city-level changes created a series of small battles that bag manufacturers and the grocery industry have proven reluctant to commit massive resources toward.
But state-level politics has been shown to shift the lobbying terrain in favor of the biggest corporate players affected by bag laws — groups with competing and conflicting interests. So the prospect of a statewide ban threw both sides of the debate into action.
The American Progressive Bag Alliance, a manufacturers’ group, hired top-shelf PR company Edelman and paid lobbyists over $640,000 to decry SB270 as a huge and calculated giveaway to the grocery industry.
A glimpse of the future
All told, the proposed bag ban revealed the power of the cross-party political currents sweeping through state and national politics this election season. It pitted some corporate interests against others. It put unions on the side of small-town Republican lawmakers. And it pulled apart the longstanding alliance between working-class Democrats in California’s interior and big-city Democrats with a fashionable and wealthy white-collar base.
These unexpected tensions and strange bedfellows could bedevil Democrats in November, in 2016, and beyond. With California Democrats still hoping for a way to save face, Padilla has one more shot at salvaging the bill before the year’s legislative session ends this week.
How he might pull it off, however, remains unclear.
James Poulos is a contributor to Calwatchdog. This piece was originally posted on Calwatchdog.com.