Shortly before the state Assembly approved on Thursday a statewide ban on single-use plastic bags, Republican Assemblyman Don Wagner pointed out the measure had failed on a floor vote just three days earlier.
“Nothing has changed,” said the Irvine legislator. “We debated it, we voted it down, and nothing has happened to this bill to make it better. There have been no amendments that have been taken.”
What had changed, however, was that a powerful union had shifted its stance on the measure. And when the bill was called to a vote several minutes later, it had picked up six additional Democratic votes – enough to pass. The legislation will likely see a final vote in the Senate on Friday.
The bill’s brief death, swift resurrection and muddled reasons for renewed life are emblematic of the behind-the-scenes negotiations that dominate the final days of a legislative session.
So what happened? California’s United Food and Commercial Workers Union had voiced “serious concerns” about the latest version of the bag ban before Monday’s initial Assembly vote. UFCW’s problem: Recent amendments allow stores to keep proceeds from the 10-cent fee charged for paper or reusable bags given to customers. In a letter to lawmakers, the union wrote it was worried the bill lacked a “serious enforcement mechanism” to make sure stores were spending the money properly.
But on Wednesday, the union was back to supporting the measure. Sam Rodriguez, who’s representing UFCW at the Capitol, said the union had reached an understanding with executives at Safeway, one of California’s largest grocery chains — not on any amendments to the bill’s current language, but to make sure the fee revenue was being spent where it was supposed to: on the costs of complying with the new regulations; buying paper bags; and educational campaigns for consumers.
“We look forward to working together to ensure the provisions in the law are adequate,” Rodriguez said. He hinted that cooperation may involve a new bill next year.
Most of SB270’s new support came from Democrats who had abstained during Monday’s vote. Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia (D-Bell Gardens), however, went from “no” to “yes.” She said her shift had nothing to do with how the 10-cent fee would be spent or UFCW’s support for the measure. Garcia said she talked to the bill’s sponsor, Senate Democrat Alex Padilla (D-Pacoima), as well as the business groups involved in the negotiations.
“I wanted to make sure that it was a compromise from them — that in three years, when we see the data, it was not going to take us nine years, or six years, to pass additional legislation,” she said. “That they were going to come to the table and we were going to do it in a timely manner, and that I got to be part of the discussions, also.”
Garcia was referring to a CalRecycle report that SB270 would commission on whether the ban has any environmental or economic impact. The report would be due in 2018. But if she’s waiting on definitive data, Garcia may be disappointed: Last year the Associated Press found CalRecycle had not kept tabs on whether a previous statewide effort to cut back on plastic bag use was actually working.
Like the UFCW, Garcia seemed hopeful a follow-up measure may emerge next year. “For ourselves, it was the idea this is the first step in what could possibly be multiple steps,” she said, on another dynamic that shifted her from a “no” to a “yes.”
But promises of “next year” should be taken with a grain of salt at the Capitol. As we’re seeing this week, many major measures don’t pass until the final days of legislative sessions, when deals are being cut and deadlines are looming. A promise to revisit a measure can be reneged as new leaders and stakeholders emerge. Case in point: Padilla, who has spearheaded the bag ban over the last two years, is term-limited and won’t be around for any follow-up debates.