SACRAMENTO -- Several days before this weekend's deadline to complete their work, legislators received a letter from what appeared to be a grass-roots Latino advocacy group urging them to vote against one of the year's most contentious bills.

Familias Latinas de California denounced Senate Bill 270, which seeks to ban single-use plastic grocery bags and encourage reusable bags, calling it "a proposal for wealthy communities that can afford fancy bags" that would put hardworking Latinos at "a disadvantage."

Turns out the letter was distributed by an industry lobbyist and that the group is run by political consultants fighting the ban. But nonetheless, several lawmakers got the message and repeated the letter's talking points during speeches delivered on the Assembly floor moments before the measure fell three votes short of passage Monday.

Passer-by carries plastic single-use bags at the State Capitol in Sacramento, Calif., August 2014. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)
Passer-by carries plastic single-use bags at the State Capitol in Sacramento, Calif., August 2014. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli) ( Rich Pedroncelli )

What began several months ago as a relatively principled debate about the environment versus jobs has devolved into hot buttons and flash points that have little to do with the substance of the bag ban. It's a classic example of the ugly and sometimes disingenuous battles that Sacramento lobbyists wage -- and lawmakers assent to -- each year over high-profile bills in the final days of the legislative session.

"Special interests produce two things of importance -- campaign contributions and rationales that protect a lawmaker's vote against criticism," said Jack Pitney, a professor and political expert at Claremont McKenna College. "Rationalizations are more important than sex. Ever go a week without one?"


Advertisement

In the days leading up to Monday's vote on the bill, environmentalists who have fought for its passage were feeling confident, but then confusion and criticism about the bill's requirement that stores charge a 10-cent fee for paper bags and sturdy plastic bags -- a provision of the law aimed at encouraging shoppers to bring their own reusable bags -- bubbled up unexpectedly.

"If this bill is about getting rid of plastic bags, do that! Say no more plastic bags," said Assemblywoman Cheryl Brown, D-San Bernardino, who abstained during Monday's vote tally. "To charge for a bag that's been given free as a part of doing business, I don't think is the way to go."

Representatives of Californians Against Waste and other environmental groups are hoping that the next vote on the bill later this week will be successful. So they're working feverishly to ease lawmakers' concerns with the measure, said Mark Murray, the group's executive director. He's met face-to-face with several members who voted no or abstained and hopes to win support from some of them.

The environmental groups say low-income shoppers are protected; the bill says anyone who qualifies for food stamps or a nutrition program for low-income women and their babies can get paper bags from grocery stores for free.

But proponents of the bag ban recognize their industry adversaries are working just as hard to sow more doubt about the measure. And unlike environmentalists, they have access to lawmakers at the tony fundraisers being held this week in Sacramento to raise money for legislators up for reelection this fall.

"Members of the Assembly continue to hold fundraising events, so it's an uneven playing field in terms of access," said Murray, who doesn't pay for the pricey tickets to attend the events. "Conversations take place in those forums that regular citizens and others aren't participating in."

Earlier this year, Sen. Alex Padilla, D-Pacoima, the sponsor of the proposed ban on super-thin plastic bags, introduced another measure to curb this type of fundraising. But the measure died quietly in an Assembly committee at the hands of some of the same lawmakers who abstained or voted no on the bag ban earlier this week.

Senate Bill 1101 would have blocked all candidates for statewide office from accepting campaign contributions when lawmakers are negotiating the budget and during the final weeks of the legislative session. It was one of the toughest ethics reform bills proposed in the wake of corruption scandals that have rocked Sacramento this year.

"Regardless of what you think of a bill, the prospect of a big campaign check in the next election cycle can be a very powerful form of persuasion," said Dan Schnur, director of USC's Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics, who lost his bid for secretary of state in June's primary election.

Hilex Poly, a South Carolina-based plastic bag maker, and a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group the company helped found have spent more than half a million dollars in lobbying fees and campaign contributions to kill more than a dozen proposed plastic bag bans in California in recent years.

In January, Padilla announced a breakthrough compromise with some of the legislation's other opponents. He agreed to make $2 million from the state's bottle-and-can recycling fund available to California plastic bag makers who want to retool their operations and instead manufacture reusable plastic bags that meet the bill's standards. So the bill had been widely expected to pass.

No one will know precisely how much money the plastic and paper bag industries have dumped into lawmakers' laps until they file campaign finance reports with the Secretary of State's Office detailing their contributions. The reports aren't due until October, but Capitol observers expect spending will be substantial because it's an election year.

Schnur said the lobbyists working to kill the bag ban deserve credit for giving lawmakers who oppose the bill "a plausible talking point." But it's ironic, he said, that many of the same people appalled at the 10-cent cost of a paper or reusable plastic bag were comfortable raising the sales tax on those same low-income consumers two years ago when they called for passage of Proposition 30.

"It would be a lot more difficult for them to stand on the floor, tell the truth and say, 'I can't vote for this bill because I don't want a lot of money spent against me in my next re-election campaign,'" Schnur said.

Contact Jessica Calefati at 916-441-2101. Follow her at Twitter.com/calefati. Read the Political Blotter at IBAbuzz.com/politics.