Dan Walters

Opinion: Plastic bag referendum is no-lose situation

Plastic single-use bags are carried past the state Capitol in Sacramento, Calif. on Aug. 12, 2014. Gov Jerry Brown signed SB270 by Sen. Alex Padilla, D-Los Angeles, Tuesday, Sept. 30, 2014, which imposes the nation’s first statewide ban on single-use plastic bag.
Plastic single-use bags are carried past the state Capitol in Sacramento, Calif. on Aug. 12, 2014. Gov Jerry Brown signed SB270 by Sen. Alex Padilla, D-Los Angeles, Tuesday, Sept. 30, 2014, which imposes the nation’s first statewide ban on single-use plastic bag. AP

Superficially, it would seem to make little sense for the plastic grocery bag industry to spend millions of dollars on a referendum to overturn the state’s new ban on their products.

After all, dozens of cities have already imposed plastic bag bans of their own, and a recent poll by the University of Southern California and the Los Angeles Times found that voters support a statewide ban by a nearly 2-1 margin.

But bag companies are spending heavily to gather the hundreds of thousands of registered-voter signatures they need to place the issue before voters in 2016.

Spending on the signature drive, which has a Dec. 29 deadline, is already approaching $3 million, with South Carolina-based Hilex Poly providing more than half of the war chest.

Assuming the signature drive succeeds, it’s really a no-lose situation for the plastic bag folks and their allies in the paper bag industry.

The latter don’t like the new law because it authorizes grocers to charge 10 cents a bag for customers who can’t use plastic but don’t want to supply their own reusable bags, saying it will drive them out of the grocery business as well.

Just qualifying the referendum would put a nearly two-year hold on the new law, which means its sponsors would have an additional two years of selling bags to grocers in areas without local bans.

That alone would probably more than cover the cost of qualification, thus making it financially worthwhile even if the referendum fails to overturn the law.

And one shouldn’t discount the possibility that the bag companies would win in 2016, the USC/Los Angeles Times poll notwithstanding – assuming, of course, they choose to wage a real campaign to overturn the ban, rather than settle for the two-year delay.

Like all ballot measures, its outcome would hinge on money and the cleverness of the opposing campaign teams in defining the issue for voters.

Proponents of the ban, probably fueled with money from the grocery industry, would make the environmental argument: that doing away with plastic bags will reduce pollution and protect wildlife and health.

But the plastic bag folks would likely concentrate on the dime-a-bag aspect of the legislation, telling voters that they are being forced to pay for something they once got for free with their groceries, and depicting it as government-ordered price-fixing and a multimillion-dollar grab by grocers.

With enough money, the latter argument could be very effective.

California political history is replete with examples of ballot measures that began their campaigns in one relative position, only to see massive shifts by election day. Apparent winners often become losers and vice versa.

If nothing else, a high-dollar campaign for and against the plastic bag ban would be a windfall for campaign consultants.

Call The Bee’s Dan Walters, (916) 321-1195. Back columns, sacbee.com/dan-walters. Follow him on Twitter @WaltersBee.

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