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Plastic Bag Ban: Officials, Environmentalists Make Last Pitch Before State Senate Takes a Vote

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Sunday morning shoppers at Vons in Wilshire Center had an unusual sight to see from the checkout line. Feet away from them were TV cameras, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and others talking about Assembly Bill 1998, known to many as the plastic bag ban.

AB 1998, which would ban single-use plastic and paper bags from supermarkets, liquor stores, pharmacies and other small food stores by 2013, must go before a State Senate vote before the end of Tuesday, when the legislative session ends. Under the legislation, customers without reusable bags will be charged for the cost of a recycled 40% post-consumer paper bag, but those on government assistance programs will get those bags for free. If approved, followed by the Assembly concurrence vote, it will head to Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who has already publicly supported the bill.

But there's no way of telling how the vote in the State Senate will go. As Dan Aiello at the California Progress Report said, it may be "this year's most memorable legislative fight in Sacramento..."

That's because millions have been poured into fighting the bill.

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"The only opposition at this point is the American Chemistry Council," the bill's author Julia Brownley of Santa Monica said Sunday morning. "And believe me this legislation is their battle ground because they know if California goes, so will our neighboring coastal states -- Washington and Oregon -- and eventually the rest of the country. The ACC spent millions in one city -- Seattle, Washington -- to stop a ban there a few years ago."

Brownley said the group, which represents plastic bag manufactures, Exxon and Dow, has hired additional lobbyists, bought radio ads in certain Senate districts, is pushing robocalls to Senators' offices and is running primetime TV ads in Sacramento that "are playing more frequently than any Meg Whitman has played." To that, the Assemblymember said, "This does not happen in Sacramento... it's an unprecedented effort on their part."

Not only that, the ACC and affiliated groups have given donations to politicians who hold key votes this week, according to the Sacramento Bee. Many of them represent Southern California, including "Sens. Tony Strickland, R-Moorpark; Mimi Walters, R-Laguna Niguel; Curren Price, D-Inglewood; and Ron Calderon, D-Montebello." All received the maximum $3,900 per election period.

"There's no logical reason to vote against this bill when you have this broad a coalition of leadership in the state of California backing it," said Mark Gold of Heal the Bay, which is sponsoring the bill.

Part of that coalition is the California Grocers Association. Vice President Dave Heylen said AB 1998 "provides the greatest environmental gain for California while having the least amount of impact on business and consumers."

Raul Diaz of Homeboy Industries, which now makes reusable bags, added, "It's time for people in the inner cities to be involved in issues like this." Businesses and non-profits like Homeboy could receive grants and loans from existing state funds that would be released under the bill to support green jobs.

Perhaps the most poignant statement Sunday morning came from Marshall Wright of Environment California: "Something that we use for five minutes shouldn't last 500 years."

Many agree. L.A. County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky agrees so much, he said that if the bill fails at the state level, then it's going to happen locally where in L.A. County an ordinance is ready to go, complete with an environmental clearance, something the ACC sued other cities for not doing when they tried to ban plastic bags. Yaroslavsky said cities just need to, in essence, copy and paste the County's work to pass their own ordinances, which Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa is ready to push if he has to.

"The plastic bags industry needs to know if they are successful with all their money in killing this bill in the next 48 hours, that doesn't make this issue go away," warned Yaroslavsky. "It's going to come back at them at in every city and every county in one form or another and that's not in their interest."

Brownley was certainly hopeful for her bill. "If China can do this, if India can do this, if Mexico can do this, and even Bangladesh can do this, we can do this in California."