On January 9, at a press conference in the State Capitol introducing his FY 2014-15 budget, Governor Jerry Brown said, “There will be no new taxes for the foreseeable future.”
Could it be that we have reached the unforeseen future with the delivery by the California legislature of Senate Bill 270, the “plastic bag ban,” on his desk?
Taken on its face, this legislation is a statewide ban on the use of plastic grocery bags. A proverbial softball across home plate for a governor who last year scored an 89% on the California League of Conservation Voters California Environmental Scorecard. Brown could hold a Schwarzenegger-esque media event on a floating barge in Santa Monica Bay, declaring it a plastic bag-free zone.
But of course SB 270 is hardly a simple ban on plastic grocery bags. Given the lopsided numeric advantage that Democrats have in the California legislature, one assumes that such a simple ban could have been passed. But instead, written in the legislation by its author, Senator Alex Padilla (D-Pacoima), is a significant de facto tax increase on California consumers–a regressive tax increase, at that.
SB 270 contains a government mandate that every grocery store that sells paper bags (which will be just about all of them) must charge at least ten cents for each bag–considerably more than it costs the stores to stock those bags. The result of this new tax on paper grocery bags? Billions of dollars in new profits for California grocers–because every single penny will go to the grocers’ pockets, not to any environmental cause or government program.
These billions of dollars in mandatory fees/taxes, for a product that today is offered complimentary to grocery shoppers, are the real story of SB 270. They are the reason why, after years and years of opposing a plastic bag ban, suddenly the California Grocers Association became the most outspoken supporter of this legislation.
And it was a spat between the Grocers and the United Food and Commercial Workers Union that almost kept the legislation off the Brown’s desk. No doubt a fight erupted internally over how the “wealth” might be shared by all.
On the first Assembly floor vote on SB 270, nearly a third of the lower chambers 54 Democrats voted against or didn’t vote on the bill, right after the UFCW pulled their support. When a deal was struck, and the UFCW came back on board, the legislation sailed through.
All of which takes us to the decision that faces Governor Brown as he weighs the fate of SB 270. With the stroke of his pen, the governor can ban plastic grocery bags in those parts of the state that have not chosen to do so locally. Yet to do so he would have to expose his January comments about no new taxes as being totally false.
Of course, the governor could also return SB 270 to the legislature, and ask them next year to bring him a “clean” bag ban–one that doesn’t contain billions of dollars in payoffs to the greedy grocers.