Monday, December 8th, 2014
Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake deserves all the praise she receives for vetoing the politically-motivated plastic bag ban the City Council recently passed with no debate or public discussion. Looming over this issue was a lingering question on the mind of Rawlings-Blake and the collective mind of the plastics industry: where have the voters been in this process?
The City Council certainly didn’t pay attention to them when they took an unpopular 5-cent bag fee bill and changed it at the eleventh hour, without debate or discussion, into an outright ban (members of the City Council who supported the ban said that the statewide midterm elections and a general anti-tax fervor led them to abandon the fee) and they certainly didn’t listen to local business owners who opposed a bag ban on the grounds that it would increase costs and amount to another tax that the City Council claimed it wanted to avoid.
In fact, according to Mark Daniels, chairman of the American Progressive Bag Alliance (APBA), because paper bags cost more for grocers to supply, a ban on plastic bags would increase costs for consumers. For example, Daniels noted, for a large grocery store to switch to all paper it could cost an extra $60,000 to $90,000 per store. Those costs would be passed on to consumers, meaning a family of five would see an increase in their annual grocery expenses. If the Council understood the voters’ frustration with increased taxes, it had a funny way of showing it.
The plastic bag ban has become a cause celebre for politicians hoping to score political points and a symbolic victory that is only ever just that: symbolic. Plastic bags take up less than one percent of the municipal waste stream nationwide, and while no amount of litter is acceptable, the issue requires serious solutions and actual discussion. SPI: The Plastics Industry Trade Association and the APBA share the Baltimore City Council’s concerns about litter, but if they’re serious about having an impact, they should be focusing on litter and recycling education rather than instituting new taxes. Of course, the City Council was never interested in serious solutions and actual discussion; this was a political ploy meant to send the mayor a message.
Baltimore’s experience is becoming all too typical, as, in the search for that symbolic victory, politicians find loopholes to jam plastic bag bans and taxes through the legislature at the expense of openness and transparency. That’s because every time one of these proposals is presented to voters, they’ve rejected it. The only ways to enact a plastic bag ban or tax seem to be to make backroom deals, play political games and silence voter input, but that’s not how government is supposed to work in America. The voters get to have their say, and each time they’ve gotten the chance to, they’ve opposed it.
Ultimately all of these factors lead SPI and the APBA to the conclusion that Rawlings-Blake’s veto was the right thing to do. This was an underhanded effort by the Baltimore City Council to circumvent normal procedures of governance in order to enact a bill Baltimoreans didn’t want, and never got a chance to object to. The veto shows that if the City Council doesn’t value Baltimore residents’ right to debate and discussion, the Mayor does.