With California lawmakers poised to vote on a historic effort to phase out plastic grocery bags, the American Chemistry Council is going all out to stop the proposal before the Tuesday legislative deadline.
The Virginia-based interest group, whose members include Exxon, Dow and plastic bag manufacturers, is a well-known player in California, where it has battled environmental bills and anti-plastic city ordinances it contends hurt businesses or limit consumer choice. The council has marshaled an expensive TV and radio ad campaign against the bag bill, unleashed a flurry of fresh donations to politicians and assembled teams of high-powered lobbyists with ties to Republicans and Democrats at the Capitol.
This month alone, at least seven state senators – including four Democrats whose votes could prove crucial – have received campaign donations directly from the council or council affiliates Exxon and the South Carolina-based bag manufacturer Hilex Poly Co. Hilex Poly Co. also gave $10,000 to the Democratic State Central Committee of California on Aug. 5. The next day, Exxon gave the Republican Party $10,000, among other donations it has made.
At least two other Democratic senators with key votes were given donations in June.
"We try to build relationships and support," said Tim Shestek, the American Chemistry Council's director of state and local public affairs.
The council also has been a key foe of attempts at the Capitol to ban BPA, the substance bisphenol A, in baby bottles and sippy cups sold in California. Citing health concerns, some smaller states have enacted bans within the year. An anti-BPA bill failed to get enough Democratic votes to pass Wednesday.
In its most public show of lobbying muscle against the still-pending bag bill, the council recently launched statewide radio ads. A TV spot airing in Sacramento attacks legislators as frivolous for getting involved in grocery bag regulation.
A narrator accuses them of focusing on grocery bags – and trying to pass a "hidden tax" – while 2.3 million people are unemployed and the state has a $19 billion deficit.
"Tell them no," the narrator says.
About 19 billion plastic bags are distributed free every year in California, and only an estimated 5 to 6 percent of plastic material is recycled annually. Assemblywoman Julia Brownley, D-Santa Monica, is carrying Assembly Bill 1998, which would make California the first state in the nation to ban plastic bags at grocery stores, drugstores and certain convenience stores by 2013.
Consumers would have to bring their own bags, or get a recycled paper bag for a nickel. The charge would add up to about $150 million to $400 million a year that retailers would keep – explaining why major grocery interests now support the bill.
The bill passed the Assembly in a 42-27 vote in June, with no Republican support. Now idling in the Senate Rules Committee, it would have to go to the Senate floor by Tuesday. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger supports the bill's goals in principle, so if enough Democrats vote for it the proposal stands a good chance of becoming law.
Also behind the push to kill Brownley's bill is an American Chemistry Council subgroup, the Progressive Bag Affiliates, a corporate alliance that promotes voluntary recycling proposals across the country and fights attempts to ban single-use plastic bags.
Hilex Poly Co. and Exxon are part of that group.
This month, Hilex gave the maximum per-election direct donation of $3,900 to Sens. Tony Strickland, R-Moorpark; Mimi Walters, R-Laguna Niguel; Curren Price, D-Inglewood; and Ron Calderon, D-Montebello.
The American Chemistry Council gave $1,500 each this month to Sens. Gloria Negrete McLeod, D-Chino, and Sam Blakeslee, R-San Luis Obispo, who also benefited from a donation from a $1,500 donation from the council in May.
Exxon gave Blakeslee $3,000 this month and Negrete McLeod $1,500.
In June, the American Chemistry Council gave Sen. Gil Cedillo, D-Los Angeles, $1,500, and Hilex Poly Co. gave Sen. Lois Wolk, D-Davis, a $2,500 donation.
Some legislators – including those with strong pro-environmental voting records – say they want to reduce plastic-bag use but would prefer consumers get rewarded by getting money back for using their own or recycled bags. Wolk, who has a strong record on environmental legislation, said she's received donations from grocery interests in recent months, too.
"People are dealing and wheeling," Wolk said. "There is a great deal of push on both sides."
Wolk said she has "no problem" voting against the wishes of a donor if she supports a bill. She noted that she is a strong supporter of the bill to ban BPA in baby bottles. She's concerned about the bag bill's nickel charge to consumers, she said, and the fact that it overrides local recycling ordinances, except for San Francisco's. Her vote, she said, "has nothing to do with contributions – at least it doesn't with me."