CITY HALL City officials are revising a proposed ban on single-use plastic bags after the passage of Proposition 26 in this month’s election raised questions about whether the City Council retained the authority to outlaw plastic.
Prop. 26, which passed with 53 percent of the vote, redefines most fees on industry as taxes, which require a two-thirds vote to win approval, instead of a simple majority vote from an elected body or from the public.
While there’s disagreement over how Prop. 26 will apply statewide, City Hall’s Dean Kubani, director of the Office of Sustainability and the Environment, said it was clear the version of the bag ban proposal officials had planned to bring to the council as early as this month would butt up against the newly passed proposition.
He said City Hall still plans to bring a plastic bag ban to the council for a vote, but will have to change the measure and reconfigure its economic analysis of the plan. A vote could come by January, he added.
The proposal that had been under discussion at City Hall would have banned stores from using single-use carry out plastic bags and required them to charge at least a 20 cent, per-bag fee for recycled paper bags, Kubani said.
Out of the 20 cent fee, 16.6 cents were to cover the store owners’ costs and 3.4 cents were to go to City Hall to fund enforcement and outreach for the program.
It’s City Hall’s portion of the fee that has caused Santa Monica officials to reconsider, Kubani said, because it’s likely that amount would be considered a tax on industry and couldn’t be enacted without a two-thirds vote from the public under Prop. 26. Kubani said even a unanimous decision by the City Council to establish the fee would likely be vulnerable to legal challenge.
Instead, Kubani said City Hall will likely forego the estimated $450,000 the measure would have raised for administering the program and will propose a measure similar to the one that Los Angeles County supervisors approved on Tuesday. That measure bans the use of plastic bags by grocery stores and mandates at least a 10 cent, per-paper-bag fee, the entirety of which is retained by the stores. It applies to unincorporated areas of the county, which have a population of about 1.1 million.
L.A. County Counsel Andrea Ordin on Tuesday said the paper bag surcharge did not fall under Prop. 26 because no portion of it is directed to a government agency.
Councilman Richard Bloom said scrapping the revenue generating portion of Santa Monica’s proposed plastic bag ban program will probably mean paring down any educational publicity campaign connected to the ban. But he said he didn’t expect the lack of funding to erode support for the idea of banning plastic bags.
“I don’t think that’s going to deter the council from moving forward on this ban. It’s been a community priority for too long,” he said.
Existing efforts to educate the public about Santa Monica ordinances like the polystyrene ban could be adapted to include outreach for the plastic bag ban at minimal cost, he said.
The county supervisors’ move to bar grocery stores from using plastic bags on Tuesday was praised by advocates of the ban, including Santa Monica-based environmental watchdog Heal the Bay, for being one of the strongest measures of its kind in the country. San Francisco’s ban is less restrictive, advocates said, because it allows stores to use plastic bags made from cornstarch, which also pose environmental risks. Malibu’s ban doesn’t require stores to charge a paper bag fee.
According to Heal the Bay, California municipalities spend nearly $25 million each year to collect and dispose of plastic bag waste, and less than 5 percent of plastic grocery bags are recycled statewide. The bags are an environmental problem because they clog landfills, litter public spaces and harm animal life when they end up in waterways, the group said.
The passage of the county plastic bag law comes after a statewide proposal to ban plastic carryout bags proposed by State Assemblywoman Julia Brownley (D-Santa Monica), failed to pass the State Senate in August.
Brownley hailed the county measure’s passage as the first of many expected plastic bag bans in local jurisdictions.
“This is just the beginning of a wave of bans against single-use plastic bags across California,” she said. “The plastic bag industry’s millions of dollars spent lobbying against these bans can’t stop this movement. Californians are tired of wasting millions of dollars every year cleaning up plastic bag pollution and they are switching to reusable bags.”
It’s still possible bag ban opponents could bring a legal challenge against L.A. County.
Prior to the vote by county supervisors, the American Chemistry Council, the plastics industry-funded group that was the chief lobbying force against Brownley’s measure, issued a statement warning that Prop. 26 may pre-empt the county’s bag ban.
“If the proposed fee on paper bags is a regulatory fee under Prop. 26, it cannot proceed on a routine board vote — a 2/3 vote would be needed,” the organization said in a statement.
The board of supervisors’ vote to pass the measure was 3-1, with Supervisors Gloria Molina, Mark Ridley-Thomas and Zev Yaroslavsky in favor of the measure, and Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich opposed. Supervisor Don Knabe was absent.
Tim Shestek, the ACC’s senior director of state affairs, had earlier urged the board to call off the planned vote, citing uncertainty caused by Prop. 26.
“The voters have clearly spoken in California that they are tired of getting hit with what amounts to consumer taxes thinly disguised as fees,” he said in a statement. “Given that Prop. 26 has just passed, it’s critical that the board carefully examine how [it] applies to the bag ordinance before attempting a vote.”