At the heart of it, Ohio House Bill 242 served as a political Rorschach test.
The bill, which the House approved on Wednesday, bans Ohio communities from instituting a tax or prohibition on plastic bags and other single-use items such as straws and cups.
Supporters, primarily Republicans, see this as a simple matter of commercial convenience — why add another expense to grocery businesses and force chains to manage inconsistent costs imposed by varying towns?
Opponents do not see the issue through a business lens. For some, like members of the Sierra Club, this is an ecological problem. Allowing communities to ban or curb the use of plastic bags will divert waste, encourage recycling and generally protect the environment.
Others against the bill see it a completely third way: officials at the township, municipal and county wide level argue this represents a larger governmental principal. Banning their abilities to regulate at the local level is a clear and consequential violation of home rule.
“The importance of local self-governance and municipal home rule is a core principle of Ohio’s Constitution,” Keary McCarthy, executive director of the Ohio Mayors Alliance, pointed out to lawmakers. Similar points were made by the County Commissions Association of Ohio and the Ohio Township Association.
Business interests won the day, with the House passing the bill, 58-35. Three Democrats joined a Republican majority in supporting the bill, with three Republicans likewise voting against.
Now the matter turns to the Senate, where a similar bill was introduced in October. While a Republican majority in the Senate seems poised to follow suit, Gov. Mike DeWine has made it clear that he opposes his party’s efforts. DeWine said recently that lawmakers should allow local communities do “what they think is best,” the Associated Press reported.
Following the money
The competing ideological differences have another interest to contend with — money.
Senate Bill 222’s main sponsor, Michael Rulli, R-Salem, has an interest in keeping costs down for grocers: as his senatorial web page points out, he is the director of operations for Rulli Bros. Markets, which includes two grocery store locations in the Youngstown area.
Legislators in both chambers heard from a number of organizations urging support for these bills. Among them are the Ohio Grocers Association, the Ohio Chamber of Commerce, the Ohio Council of Retail Merchants and the Ohio Manufacturers Association.
The Ohio Capital Journal reviewed campaign finance data from the Secretary of State’s Office and found those four groups have contributed money in support of 20 out of the 26 sponsors and co-sponsors of HB 242 and SB 222.
The Ohio Grocers Association has been the most active, donating nearly $15,000 to 12 of those sponsors since 2010. That includes $1,000 to Rulli as the main Senate sponsor and $1,000 to Rep. George Lang, R-West Chester, one of two main House sponsors.
For and Against
The Ohio House previously voted for a similar ban in November 2018, but the legislative session ended before action was taken by the Senate.
Much of the same proponent testimony was given this year as with the first attempt.
Kristin Mullins, president and CEO of Ohio Grocers Associations, testified in June before the House State and Local Government committee. The association represents hundreds of food retailers and companies throughout Ohio. Mullins said plastic bag fees, taxes and bans “can pose a significant burden for grocery and retail food establishments.”
Mullins noted that some chains operate in numerous cities, and that “having varying rules and regulations relating to fees would be a logistical nightmare and prove difficult to manage.” Customer and employee confusion over a bag fee could eventually result in store closures, she argued.
Rob Brundrett, director of public policy services for the Ohio Manufacturers’ Association, made note of the dozens of manufacturers related to supply packaging products in this state.
He said local governments’ efforts to enact restrictions on certain products “makes it very difficult for Ohio manufacturers to comply here at home, much less in the global economy.”
Elissa Yoder Mann, conservation manager for the Sierra Club’s Ohio Chapter, led the debate on ecological grounds. She said Ohio must focus its attention on diverting waste and cited an Ocean Conservancy estimate that there will be more plastic than fish by weight in the world’s oceans within a few decades’ time. She pointed to similar efforts to regulate single-use plastics in Colorado and California as being successful in reducing litter in communities that have taken action.
Written testimony against HB 242 was also submitted by Cheryl Subler, managing director of policy with the County Commissioners Association of Ohio. Subler noted that Cuyahoga County passed its own plastic bag ban earlier in 2019.
“Cuyahoga County Council has recognized that 319 million plastic bags a year are used in their county, and 95 percent end up in the lake or landfills where they will sit for years contaminating the land and the lake. Thus, Council took action to protect their local resources,” Subler wrote. “We ask that lawmakers respect local control and the ability of local elected officials to enact policies that reflect the best interests of their communities.”