Capitol Alert

On second try, California plastic bag ban passes Assembly

With a prominent grocery workers’ union back in support, the California Assembly voted on Thursday to impose a statewide ban on single-use plastic bags.

Just days after the measure could not muster the 41 votes needing to pass, falling short at 38, it passed on a 44-29 vote. Seven Democrats who withheld votes on the previous attempt pivoted to vote aye.

The measure now moves to the Senate, where it has yet to be tested with a floor vote.

Lawmakers turned back Senate Bill 270 on Monday as the United Food and Commercial Workers Union withdrew crucial labor backing for the sweeping prohibition. Central to the union’s reversal was a provision allowing grocery stores to offer paper or reusable bags for a minimum 10-cent fee.

Union representatives questioned where revenue from the fee would go, effectively aligning themselves with paper and plastic industry groups that denounced the fee as a giveaway to grocers. But the UFCW returned to backing SB 270 on Wednesday after securing an agreement with the Safeway supermarket chain.

Those swiftly changing dynamics framed Thursday’s vote, with lawmakers passing a bill that has provoked intense lobbying. Rejected in 2013, the proposal revived this year after money to convert plastic bag plants to new uses won over Democratic senators.

Proponents argue that massive volumes of discarded bags clog rivers and landfills, saddling California with hefty cleanup costs. They point to the scores of counties and cities that have already enacted bag bans as evidence that the policy can be effective and enjoys popular support.

“We live in a throwaway society. We live a lifestyle that is ultimately nonsustainable,” said Assemblyman Bill Quirk, D-Hayward. “What this bill does is to make an effort to do one little thing – get people to use reusable bags.”

But critics warned that the measure would cost jobs. They continued to lambaste the 10-cent fee, saying it would line the pockets of grocers and retailers.

“It is a tax increase we impose to benefit local businesses,” said Assemblyman Don Wagner, R-Irvine. “It makes absolutely no sense as tax policy, it makes no sense as a jobs policy.”

Republican dissenters also questioned the grocery workers union’s repeated reversals on the bill.

In an interview with The Sacramento Bee, UFCW Western States Council Executive Director James Araby declined to go into detail about why the pact his union had forged with Safeway restored his union’s backing. He said only that it assuaged fears about the fate of money flowing in from the bag fee.

“After discussions with many in the industry, including Safeway, our understanding is they’ll work with us to ensure the 10 cents are kept in the local communities,” Araby said.

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