Capitol Alert

California plastic bag ban on hold pending 2016 vote

A woman walks with a plastic bag in Sacramento last May. Opponents of California’s first-in-the-nation statewide ban on plastic bags have qualified a referendum on the law.
A woman walks with a plastic bag in Sacramento last May. Opponents of California’s first-in-the-nation statewide ban on plastic bags have qualified a referendum on the law. The Associated Press

California voters will get their say next year on the state’s ban on plastic carryout bags, after the law’s opponents in the plastic bag manufacturing industry gathered enough valid voter signatures to qualify a November 2016 referendum on the measure.

The referendum’s qualification suspends the law until voters weigh in. The first bag restrictions, covering large grocery stores and pharmacies, had been set to go into effect July 1.

A spokesman for the American Progressive Bag Alliance, which spent more than $3 million on the effort to qualify the referendum, said the group’s goals go beyond just keeping the law off the books for 21 more months. Opponents intend to mount an active campaign to scrap the law entirely, he said.

“Delaying a piece of terrible legislation from taking effect … is obviously something that everybody is looking on favorably,” alliance spokesman Jon Berrier said. “There will be a very significant voter education campaign as we move into 2016. This is something the industry is into to win.”

Legislation to create a statewide ban became one of the most high-profile fights of the 2014 legislative session. The law called for phasing in restrictions on single-use bags, expanding to smaller markets and convenience stores in 2016.

Cities and counties across California already prohibit or charge for the bags, and that number is expected to grow over the coming months. Tuesday, a spokesman for Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson said “there will be renewed push to make sure Sacramento moves forward” with its own plastic bag prohibition.

Opponents of the California law launched an effort to overturn the measure within days of Gov. Jerry Brown’s signature approving it. South Carolina-based Hilex Poly Co. Inc. contributed $1.7 million to the effort to qualify the referendum. Other top sources of money were Texas-based Superbag Corp. and Advance Polybag Inc., which gave $500,000 apiece, and New Jersey-based Formosa Plastics Corp. USA, which contributed $400,000.

Critics contend the law would eliminate thousands of jobs while allowing grocers to rake in hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue from bag sales.

Supporters of the law include unions, the California Grocers Association and environmental groups, as well as various local governments. Tuesday, proponents said they are optimistic that California voters will uphold the measure.

“It’s not surprising that after spending more than $3.2 million, 98 percent of which is from out of state, the plastic bag industry has bought its way onto the California ballot to protect its profits,” said Mark Murray of the group California vs. Big Plastic.

Last year’s measure, Senate Bill 270, was carried by then-Sen. Alex Padilla, who is now the secretary of state. Padilla’s office oversaw the signature sampling and deemed it sufficient to qualify the referendum for the ballot. A yes vote on the referendum would uphold the law, while a no vote would overturn it.

Tuesday’s announcement was based on a sample of almost 810,000 signatures turned in by the law’s opponents in December. Election officials estimated that 598,000 of the signatures were valid, 43,000 more than needed to qualify by random sample.

California voters have considered several referendums in recent years. Last November, voters rejected Proposition 48, overturning a tribal casino deal opposed by nearby tribes and their financial backers. In 2012, voters upheld a Senate redistricting plan challenged by Republicans. And in 2008, voters supported four casino expansion deals.

Call Jim Miller, Bee Capitol Bureau, (916) 326-5521. Follow him on Twitter @jimmiller2. The Bee’s Ryan Lillis contributed to this report.

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