MONTGOMERY — Some state lawmakers want to stop local governments from banning plastic bags, even though no Alabama cities have considered such action as of yet.
Bills sponsored by Sen. Steve Livingston, R-Scottsboro, and Rep. Nathaniel Ledbetter, R-Rainsville, would prohibit counties or municipalities from enacting any ban or tax on bags or other similar single-use items.
Senate Bill 244 and House Bill 346 were approved in committees this week and now move to the Senate and House.
“We’re just trying to provide a uniformity of commerce for the state and protect Alabama businesses and consumers so they are not charged for that,” Livingston said.
Media reports earlier this week said the legislation has been seen in other states and originated from the American Legislative Exchange Council, a conservative think tank that provides sample legislation to states.
Ledbetter told Alabama Daily News he received the bill from pro-business groups and that thousands of Alabamians work in the plastics industry.
“This really just comes down to small businesses and whether you want to put people out of a job,” Ledbetter said. “I understand that they want to stand up for their communities and I appreciate and respect that, but that’s not what this is about, it’s a small business bill and it’s to protect businesses across the state.”
The Alabama Retail Association is one of the groups supporting the bills. A spokeswoman told ADN the bill would provide a universal level of commerce across the state.
“We support the work of retailers across the state and we don’t want there to be an opportunity for there to be a patchwork of differing laws regarding plastic bags and other plastic products,” Melissa Warnke, a spokeswoman for the association said. “If there is some sort of a ban, we would like to see it a statewide ban and not just for an individual county or municipality.”
Tammy Herrington, the executive director of Conservation Alabama, dislikes the bill.
“We see this as a bad piece of legislation for environmental reasons but also for the fact that we have seen similar legislation introduced in other states and this bill just seems to be one of those copy and paste piece of legislation and is coming from outside of Alabama and is not a constituent-led campaign,” Herrington said.
According to a representative of Mobile Baykeeper, an environmental advocacy group, discarded plastic accounts for 53 percent of the trash collected during a series of coastal marine debris clean-ups off the coast of Alabama.
Plastic bags and other plastic trash can negatively affect waterways and animal life by blocking filtrations systems and causing intestinal blockage, starvation and death in sea life when they ingest the plastic.
Ledbetter said that, instead of banning bags, he would like to see harsher fines put on those who are caught littering in order to deal with the plastics pollution problem.
“I would like to see an increase in the fines for littering because it’s not the bags that are the ones doing the littering,” Ledbetter said. “We’ve got to punish the people doing the littering.”
Rep. Barbara Boyd, D- Anniston, is a member of the House Governmental Affairs Committee and voted in favor of the bill but declined to comment after the meeting.
Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston, is a co-sponsor on the Senate bill.
Sen. Gerald Allen, R-Tuscaloosa, said he’d support the bill if it gets to the Senate floor. He said it’s about keeping cost down and convenience up for consumers.
“When you look at the type of bags they use, they break down fast and easily,” Allen said.
Sen. Linda Coleman-Madison, D-Birmingam, said she is confused about why the bill was even brought up if there are no local governments banning the product.
The Alabama League of Municipalities said its members are always concerned about legislation that would preempt city authority over public policy and officials there would be paying attention to the progression of the bill.
Sen. Chris Elliot, R-Daphne, said he voted no on the bill in committee because he thinks local governments should have control over the issue and how the problem of littering personally affects his district.
“I understand that this bill is about uniformity across the state, but I am a local government guy at heart and I believe that the decisions made at the local level are the best for the people,” Elliott told Alabama Daily News.
“There’s the undeniable link to my district because it is completely surrounded by water, that we get stuck with a lot of these plastic bags and Styrofoam products in our waterways and in the bay and I think we need to leave it to our local governments to address that if possible.”
Senators also said they understood the concerns over pollution but maintained that the bill is about tackling concerns surrounding Alabama businesses.
“Those products are already in the water, that’s way past what we are talking about and we can’t do anything about that with this bill,” Livingston said. “That’s a littering problem, not a business problem.”
Sen. Dan Roberts, R-Birmingham, voted in favor of the bill and shares the same concerns as Livingston.
“I just thought it made more sense to be a statewide decision rather than have a difference between counties or cities. It would just lessen the confusion between everyone in the state,” Roberts said.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, the only states that have a statewide ban on single-use plastic bags are California, Hawaii and New York.
Sen. Garlan Gudger, R-Cullman, said he hates to see littering just as much as the next person but this bill is meant to look out for businesses.
“The good intended consequence of the ban would be for that, to help the environment, but this is an unintended consequence and I want to do what’s right for businesses and have a good repercussion from this which doesn’t always happen for businesses,” Gudger said.
Alabama Daily News reporter Mary Sell contributed to this report.
This coverage of the 2019 session of the Alabama Legislature is provided by the Capitol News Service of Alabama Daily News, based in Montgomery. BirminghamWatch is publishing reporters’ news and analysis but not commentary, from this new partner.