State Issues

Why some grocers can’t wait to collect bag fee

For people who want to use single-use plastic bags, there will be a fee imposed after the passage of Prop 67 is certified; but many grocers are already collectingt it.
For people who want to use single-use plastic bags, there will be a fee imposed after the passage of Prop 67 is certified; but many grocers are already collectingt it. AP

My Vons grocery in Los Angeles County added 30 cents to my bill as the bagger reported to the cashier that I had taken three recyclable brown paper bags. Obviously, Vons – and probably all other grocers up and down the state – have decided that they could impose the 10-cent fee the day after voters seemingly approved Proposition 67, the referendum on bag fees.

However, elections are not legal until the secretary of state has certified them. An enormous number of ballots are still uncounted a week after the election, and that’s why we wait for the SOS to certify elections. That takes at least a month usually.

The grocers and a lot of other people mistakenly interpret that line in the state constitution that says initiatives take effect “the day after the election” if they are successful. But what day is “the day after the election?” It wasn’t Nov. 9, last Wednesday, because the vote wasn’t certified yet. It has to be the day after the secretary of state makes that certification.

It’s not just my 30 cents that’s at stake. County clerks illegally stopped issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples the day after Proposition 8 apparently passed in 2008. Those couples were entitled to obtain licenses until word came of certification a month later.

Two years ago, in light of Proposition 47, jailers emptied the cells a month early on the basis of the apparent passage of that initiative. Is that happening again in the wake of Proposition 57?

Back in 1995 two state senators recognized the conflict between the state constitution and election-certification law. They proposed a constitutional amendment to have initiatives take effect the day after certification. Unfortunately, it never made it onto the ballot.

Let’s look at the economics. Those “free” bags I’ve been taking for decades aren’t free. Some bean counter included the $300 million cost of bags into the price of all the groceries we buy. We’ve paid for those bags all along. Do you really believe the bean counter has suddenly reduced the prices of soup and canned corn, etc., by that same amount? They’ll keep the $300 million built into the price of your goods and collect millions more from those who take the bags.

It’s surprising that voters defeated Proposition 65, which allows grocers to keep the money I and others pay for bags from now on. Voters apparently were hoodwinked by that maudlin ballot argument that suggested diverting bag fees to environmental purposes was a plot by plastic bag manufacturers. That argument was written by the same guy who wrote the argument for Proposition 67, each argument under a different organizational name but using the same Sacramento address.

Proposition 67, the bag fee, was proposed to protect the environment. Why, then, did voters not use bag revenues for that purpose?

There is an environmental argument for replacing cheap plastic bags with easily recyclable bags, but that could have been accomplished without giving grocers a $300 million windfall.

Technically, the bag ban is a legislative action initially passed by the Legislature. With luck and a lot of protests from real environmentalists, perhaps the next Legislature will kill the bag fee and demand an appropriate plastic bag.

In the meantime, where is the class-action attorney who will file suit to make grocers return my 30 cents and the millions from other shoppers they will collect in the next month?

Ralph E. Shaffer is professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly Pomona. He wrote this for The Modesto Bee. Email