Capitol Alert

California plastic bag ban referendum has enough signatures, backers say

Environmental activists such as Margo Rasteiro of El Dorado Hills, at the Capitol in 2009 representing the Clean Seas Coalition, have been pushing for years for the state to ban plastic bags. But a coalition of businesses has submitted signatures to force a referendum to reverse the bag ban Gov. Jerry Brown signed this year.
Environmental activists such as Margo Rasteiro of El Dorado Hills, at the Capitol in 2009 representing the Clean Seas Coalition, have been pushing for years for the state to ban plastic bags. But a coalition of businesses has submitted signatures to force a referendum to reverse the bag ban Gov. Jerry Brown signed this year. Sacramento Bee file

Extending the fight over California’s ban on single-use plastic bags, manufacturers and other opponents of the law on Monday submitted what they said were enough signatures for a referendum that would dispose of the ban before it can take effect.

Numerous cities and counties in California prohibit or charge for single-use plastic bags, and a bid to extend the policy statewide fueled one of the fiercest fights of the 2014 legislative session. Soon after Gov. Jerry Brown signed Senate Bill 270, an industry-backed organization called the American Progressive Bag Alliance announced the referendum drive.

Working under a narrow 90-day window – referendums have less time to qualify than other ballot initiatives – referendum backers said they had accumulated more than 800,000 signatures, many more than the 504,760 needed to qualify. Some of those signatures could be invalid, however, and now counties must conduct random samples to determine if enough of them are legitimate.

“We are pleased to have reached this important milestone in the effort to repeal a terrible piece of job-killing legislation and look forward to giving California voters a chance to make their voice heard at the ballot box in 2016,” American Progressive Bag Alliance executive director Lee Califf said in a statement.

If enough signatures are deemed valid and the referendum does go to the 2016 ballot, the law will be suspended until the electorate weighs in. That effectively buys the plastics industry a two-year reprieve regardless of how Californians vote.

Plastic bags distributed in California carry a wholesale value of about $195 million annually, and bag makers’ profits would suffer if that market vanished. There are also national implications, given the possibility that other states would emulate California and adopt their own bans should the policy succeed here.

Plastic bag companies, most of them headquartered outside California, dumped millions of dollars into the signature-gathering effort. They vastly outspent the coalition of environmental groups who championed the ban.

Referendum supporters dispute the argument that plastic bags pile up huge volumes of waste. A provision in the law allowing grocery stores to charge customers 10 cents or more for paper or reusable plastic bags, they say, is a giveaway to a grocery industry that pushed for SB 270.

“SB 270 was never a bill about the environment,” Califf said in the statement. “It was a backroom deal between the grocers and union bosses to scam California consumers out of billions of dollars in bag fees without providing any public benefit.”

The 10-cent fee will not generate any profit, grocery stores say, but will serve to cover the expense of providing costlier paper and reusable plastic bags. The statewide California Grocers Association endorsed SB 270 under the argument that a statewide standard would be better for business than a quilt of different local laws.

If they spend to combat the referendum, grocery stores could provide a financial counterweight to the plastic industry. They did not fund a political action committee seeking to prevent the referendum from qualifying. A spokesman said the California Grocers Association has not made a decision about whether to get involved.

“Until the referendum’s signatures are verified by the Secretary of State, Senate Bill 270 is still the law,” California Grocers Association President Ronald Fong said in an emailed statement. “Our industry will continue preparing for its implementation.”

Acknowledging early on that the referendum had a strong chance of qualifying, the coalition of environmental groups advocating the ban has instead focused on urging more local governments to adopt their own prohibitions regardless. They say they will press on with that strategy while the statewide measure’s fate hangs in limbo.

“We can’t do anything about their signature-gathering effort,” said Mark Murray, executive director of Californians Against Waste. “What we can do is continue to encourage communities, continue to encourage individual grocery stores and individual consumers to stick with the plan and phase out plastic bags.”

More than 130 cities and counties in the state have their own ordinances. Murray believes that number will grow, pointing to “at least a dozen jurisdictions” where at least one elected official plans to introduce legislation, including San Diego and some Bay Area communities.

That strategy could pay off on Election Day, Murray said. He pointed to polling suggesting that people who live in communities with bag bans become more supportive of the concept.

Among the potential new adopters is Sacramento. The City Council was pondering an ordinance phasing out plastic bags back in 2013, but officials chose to hold off and watch the progress of a statewide measure.

They are waiting no longer. Mayor Kevin Johnson unveiled a campaign for a bag ban earlier in December, arguing in a statement that single-use plastic bags strain the city’s finances by requiring hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of maintenance and cleanup.

“They cause problems by clogging up our recycling equipment, forcing it to be shut down on a regular basis. And we’re forced to use parks and other city personnel to clean up plastic bag pollution all over the city every day,” Johnson said in the statement. “These single-use plastic bags didn’t exist 40 years ago, and we want to make sure they don’t exist in Sacramento in the near future.”

Call Jeremy B. White, Bee Capitol Bureau, (916) 326-5543.

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