Dan Walters

Opinion: California often follows social activism at local level

A large pile of washed-up trash, including old plastic bags, sits alongside the Los Angeles River in Long Beach, Calif. On Tuesday, Sept. 30, 2014. Gov. Jerry Brown signed legislation on imposing the nation's first statewide ban on single-use plastic bags.
A large pile of washed-up trash, including old plastic bags, sits alongside the Los Angeles River in Long Beach, Calif. On Tuesday, Sept. 30, 2014. Gov. Jerry Brown signed legislation on imposing the nation's first statewide ban on single-use plastic bags. AP

California voters apparently will decide whether single-use plastic bags commonly used for groceries and other consumer goods should be banned.

The plastic bag industry has spent several million dollars to collect signatures for a referendum that would, if qualified, suspend the Legislature’s newly enacted plastic bag ban until voters act in 2016.

The plastic bag conflict is interesting enough unto itself, but it also reflects an expanding model for political activism in this very culturally diverse state.

Those on the left side of the political spectrum, often frustrated in the Capitol by adroit lobbying of business groups, have been pushing their causes at the local level with some success.

Seemingly, they hope that creating patchworks of conflicting policies and laws in California’s 58 counties and 400-plus cities will generate enough financial angst – or enough momentum – that corporate executives will accept statewide action in the name of uniformity.

Plastic bags have been one of those causes. Dozens of cities enacted bans, and the grocery industry finally agreed to a statewide ban in return for authority to charge a dime for each non-plastic bag.

It is, however, not the only issue being pursued by liberal groups at the local level in hopes of affecting state policy.

Others include banning plastic foam food containers, banning “fracking” to produce oil, banning genetically engineered foods, raising minimum wages beyond the state’s level, legalizing sale and use of marijuana, and undermining a state law that allows apartment tenants to be evicted when their units are converted into condominiums.

The latter law was enacted, in fact, in response to the proliferation of local rent-control ordinances.

The Legislature passed the Ellis Act at the behest of real estate and landlord lobbyists three decades ago and ever since, they have blocked efforts in the Capitol to modify it.

A bottoms-up approach to policy making, however, has its drawbacks. It may spark corporate backlash like the Ellis Act, and cities that raise business operating costs beyond the point of acceptance may drive job-creating investment elsewhere.

Local minimum-wage laws especially have that potential, and what’s happening in Los Angeles looms as a test of their impact. Its City Council has raised the minimum wage for hotel workers to $15.37 per hour, 70 percent higher than the state minimum, and Mayor Eric Garcetti wants even broader action.

Los Angeles, however, is surrounded by smaller cities that haven’t followed suit.

“There’s at least 40 jurisdictions that’ll be happy to pick our pocket,” Ruben Gonzalez, senior vice president at the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce, told the Los Angeles Times. “Everywhere in the city, you can point to people who can move down the road and serve the same clientele.”

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

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