Why CA legislators want to ban more plastic bags

This story appeared on Calmatters

Plastic bags are scattered at W Street and Alhambra Boulevard in Sacramento on April 11, 2023. Photo by Rahul Lal, CalMatters

Flanked by a turtle mascot and “Plastic Monster” (a person covered in plastic bags), state Sens. Ben Allen and Catherine Blakespear on Thursday announced a new measure to ban plastic bags statewide — particularly the thicker ones billed as “reusable” that are currently distributed by grocery stores and restaurants.

Senate Bill 1053 — and its twin measure, Assembly Bill 2236, carried by Democratic Assemblymember Rebecca Bauer-Kahan of San Ramon — was created to plug a loophole in a 2014 law that also aimed to discourage single-use plastic bags. That ban exempted heftier plastic bags because they were considered recyclable at the time. But during the nine years under that law, Californians have continued to contribute more, not less, plastic bag waste. 

During the press conference at the state Capitol to unveil the bill, Blakespear said a plastic bag is used for about 12 minutes on average, and cited data from CalRecycle, which found that in 2004 Californians threw away about 147,000 tons of plastic, grocery and merchandise bags — or about eight pounds per person. In 2021, that number increased to 11 pounds per person. CalRecycle also deemed the plastic film used in these heavier bags as non-recyclable in its list of covered material that it released in January.

  • Bleakespear, an Encinitas Democrat: “How long do (plastic bags) take for them to degrade in our atmosphere? Over a thousand years. So for a 12-minute lifespan and the convenience of carrying your groceries home, it goes… into our landfills, our oceans, into everything we eat.”

If the new measure becomes law, stores would be required by Jan. 1, 2026 to provide recycled paper bags or reusable bags that are non-film plastic (with a few exceptions). Consumers could continue to use their own reusable bags.

The measure is another example of recent attempts by California legislators to curb the use of plastic packaging. In 2022, a compromise with the plastics industry led to Allen, a Democrat from El Segundo, successfully pushing legislation to require single-use packaging and foodware to be recyclable or compostable by 2032. And in 2021, lawmakers restricted what items were permitted to use the “chasing arrows” recycling symbol.

SB 1053 has backing from the California Grocers Association, but is expected to get pushback from the plastics industry, which poured millions into stalling and opposing the 2014 law with an unsuccessful referendum. (The Plastic Industry Association did not immediately respond to a request for comment regarding the latest bill.)

When asked if the industry could exploit perhaps another unforeseen loophole in the latest bill, Blakspear appeared to be cautiously optimistic: “We deal with problems as they emerge, but we do expect this to be effective.” 

In other legislative news: California is banking on offshore wind farms to transition to clean energy. But a key step is for ports to be able to assemble, construct and transport wind turbines.

Thursday, legislators introduced a measure that would ask voters in November to borrow $1 billion to help the ports, explains CalMatters climate reporter Alejandro Lazo. The lead author of the proposal, Assemblymember Rick Zbur, however, acknowledged that there are two other climate bond bills underway. The Democrat from Los Angeles said he is speaking to the authors of those measures about allocating money for offshore wind instead of his bond issue.

Read more about the bond proposal in Alejandro’s story.

Focus on inequality: Each Friday, the California Divide team delivers a newsletter that focuses on the politics and policy of inequality. Read an edition here and subscribe here.

Time to vote: Our comprehensive March 5 primary Voter Guide has what you need to know on Proposition 1, the U.S. Senate, U.S. House and legislative races, and answers to your questions. 

McGuire selects new CA Senate leaders

State Sen. Mike McGuire, a Democrat from Healdsburg, holds his son Connor as he is sworn in as Senate president pro tempore by California Supreme Court Chief Justice Patricia Guerrero on Feb. 5, 2024. Photo by Hector Amezcua, Sacramento Bee via Pool

State Sen. Mike McGuire holds his son Connor as he is sworn in as Senate president pro tem by California Supreme Court Chief Justice Patricia Guerrero on Feb. 5, 2024. Photo by Hector Amezcua, Sacramento Bee via Pool

From CalMatters Capitol reporter Alexei Koseff

When a new legislative leader takes charge, the biggest changes are usually to the internal power structure rather than to policymaking.

So Thursday, state Senate President Pro Tem Mike McGuire, who was sworn in this week as head of the chamber, unveiled his reshuffling of the leadership team and committee assignments. The shakeup rewards both key allies who helped the Healdsburg Democrat pull together the votes last summer to secure his office — as well as several rivals he beat in the process.

That includes Sen. Lena Gonzalez, a progressive Long Beach Democrat, who will succeed McGuire as majority leader, his deputy in charge of wrangling the Senate’s ideologically diverse supermajority Democratic caucus. Sen. Monique Limón, a Santa Barbara Democrat whose name was also batted around last year as in the hunt to become pro tem, will continue as Democratic caucus chairperson. Sen. Angelique Ashby, a Sacramento Democrat who was a major player in whipping support for McGuire, will be one of two assistant majority leaders and take over the business, professions and economic development committee. 

Perhaps in recognition of the challenging optics of a straight, white man heading an increasingly diverse Legislature, five of the seven members of McGuire’s leadership team are women and five are people of color.

McGuire appointed another close ally, Sen. Anna Caballero, a Merced Democrat, to lead the powerful appropriations committee. Sen. Scott Wiener, a San Francisco Democrat, will now oversee the budget committee as California navigates a projected multibillion-dollar deficit. A major advocate for housing and public transit, he could serve as a bulwark against significant funding cuts. Other changes include swapping Sen. Nancy Skinner, a Berkeley Democrat who led the budget committee for three years, to head the housing committee, replacing Wiener; and elevating first-term Sen. Lola Smallwood-Cuevas, a Los Angeles Democrat, to lead the labor committee.

Overall, McGuire kept more than half of the two dozen Senate committee chairpersons intact. For the full list of Senate committee assignments, go here.

Speaking of legislative committees: McGuire’s counterpart in the Assembly, Speaker Robert Rivas, has signed off on a new Downtown Recovery Select Committee led by Assemblymembert Matt Haney, a San Francisco Democrat. The committee will hold hearings this year and talk to experts to find ways to revive downtown corridors struggling to bounce back from the COVID-19 pandemic.

  • Haney, in a statement: “You see vacant storefronts and empty streets. Downtowns are supposed to be economic engines for our cities… .The last few years it’s felt like the old west — tumbleweeds, boarded-up shops, and crime.” 

Among the challenges facing downtowns, especially San Francisco — the whole “doom loop” debate — are shoplifting and other retail crime. Some blame Proposition 47, which raised the threshold for prosecuting these offenses as felonies. And now there’s a ballot measure seeking to qualify for the November election to increase penalties for smash-and-grabs, as well as fentanyl trafficking. Thursday, Mayors London Breed of San Francisco and Matt Mahan of San Jose endorsed the initiative.

Counties stuck with hotel bills

Patient Steven Dombrowski “Cowboy” speaking with Physician assistant Brett Feldman in his hotel room at the L.A. Grand Hotel on Feb. 13, 2023. The hotel was turned into an emergency shelter for unhoused people. Photo by Larry Valenzuela, CalMatters/CatchLight Local

Patient Steven Dombrowski “Cowboy” speaks with physician assistant Brett Feldman in his Project Roomkey room at the L.A. Grand Hotel on Feb. 13, 2023. Photo by Larry Valenzuela, CalMatters/CatchLight Local

One letter from the Federal Emergency Management Agency in October is all it took — and now many California counties are scrambling to account for money they thought they didn’t owe.

As CalMatters homelessness reporter Marisa Kendall explains, during the height of the pandemic in 2020 — when fears that COVID-19 would spread among the unhoused population peaked — the state moved thousands into hotel rooms. Under Project Roomkey, cities and counties leased and paid for rooms (which by one estimate cost about $260 per person, per night), counting on the federal government to pay a large part of the bill. Roomkey served about 62,000 people during the pandemic

But four months ago, FEMA sent a letter to the California Office of Emergency Services saying it would not pay for hotel stays that were longer than 20 days between June 11, 2021 and May 11, 2023. Because many people stayed longer than 20 days, California and local governments are now collectively on the hook for more than $300 million.

According to state officials, FEMA had no limit on how long someone could stay in a hotel room when Roomkey launched. But Robert Fenton, the regional administrator for FEMA Region 9 who wrote the October letter, said FEMA had made clear that it would pay for hotel stays based on “health guidance,” and 20 days was the maximum quarantine period. The state has no authority to force the federal agency to reverse course. 

For more on this issue, read Marisa’s story.

And lastly: Rural hospitals

A road sign announcing the closure of the Emergency Room and Madera Community Hospital outside the main entrance on Jan. 2, 2023. Photo by Larry Valenzuela, CalMatters/CatchLight Local

A road sign announces the closure of Madera Community Hospital outside the main entrance on Jan. 2, 2023. Photo by Larry Valenzuela, CalMatters/CatchLight Local

Madera Community Hospital became the poster child last year for the struggles of California’s rural hospitals. It may have finally found its savior. To find out who could be coming to the rescue, read CalMatters health reporter Ana B. Ibarra’s story.

CalMatters Commentary

CalMatters columnist Dan Walters: Sunday’s Super Bowl symbolizes the new alliance between professional sports and the gambling industry, but residents of the two teams’ states, California and Missouri, can’t legally bet on it.

CalMatters events: The next ones are scheduled for Tuesday in Sacramento on school battles over book bans and forced outing policies, and for Feb. 22 in Bakersfield on protecting farmworkers’ health.

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