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Supreme Court hears bag ban arguments

Hoping for the best, but not really expecting it.

In the case Laredo Merchants Association v. The City of Laredo, lawyers spent almost an hour arguing whether Laredo’s 2015 ban was illegal under state law. If the Republican-led court rules against the city, bag bans across the state could be deemed illegal.

The city of Laredo’s lawyer, former Supreme Court justice Dale Wainwright, argued single-use bags are not garbage, so they are not covered by the several lines of state law that the case hinges on. The code says local governments may not “prohibit or restrict, for solid waste management purposes, the sale or use of a container or package in a manner not authorized by state law.”

The arguments made Thursday mirrored those in lower courts, where the case was originally decided in favor of Laredo before an appeals court overturned the verdict by a 2-1 margin. The city then appealed that decision to the Supreme Court.


The oral arguments represent the last public action taken on the case, but a decision by the Supreme Court could still be a long way away. The court has discretion over the timeframe for a verdict, and previous cases have taken anywhere from a few weeks to a couple of years to resolve.

See here for some background. An earlier Trib story that previewed the case had some further details.

The case hinges on only a few lines of the Texas Health and Safety Code, specifically section 361.0961, which states local governments may not “prohibit or restrict, for solid waste management purposes, the sale or use of a container or package in a manner not authorized by state law.” In the lower courts, arguments focused on the specifics of the law, including the definitions of “container or package” and “solid waste management.”

Attorney Christy Drake-Adams filed a friend-of-the-court brief on behalf of the Texas Municipal League and the Texas City Attorneys Association supporting the city of Laredo and arguing that siding with the merchants would represent a swift departure from Texas’ history of supporting local governments.

“There just seems to be a trend that the state wants to consolidate power in the state’s hands,” Drake-Adams said. “They don’t want the federal government telling them what to do, and yet they want to tell local governments what to do.”

Drake-Adams also said this case could create a dangerous precedent of strict, uniform regulations on cities.

“Extreme uniformity and regulation fails to address diverse local concerns,” Drake-Adams said. “Texas is a great example of why that can’t work. A state as large and diverse geographically as Texas, that simply can’t work.”

Supporters of the merchants’ case are arguing that statewide enforcement of the law should overrule any local ordinances, and the inconsistent local laws like the plastic bag bans seen in cities across Texas cause unnecessary strain on small businesses.

“Inconsistent local ordinances harm the sales of affected retailers, force the layoff of employees, deprive retailers of their existing inventory of bags, and impose an expensive and complex requirement on multisite retailers to comply with varying ordinances across the state,” wrote Edward Burbach in a friend-of-the-court brief on behalf of the Texas Retailers Association in support of the merchants.

Remember, the goal here as expressed by Ken Paxton and abetted by Greg Abbott is to kill off all local bag laws, on the way to generally bringing cities to heel under the state. And yeah, we’re hoping the Supreme Court will stop them. If there’s a silver lining, it’s that the law in question can – someday – be easily modified to fix the flaw that the pro-bag-litter faction is exploiting. That would require winning some elections first, of course. But at least it gives us something to aim for.

Council approves new recycling deal


Mayor Sylvester Turner

Houston residents are set to have their used glass and plastic bags picked up for recycling at curbside, but not until next year.

The 20-year, $37 million agreement City Council approved Wednesday is the product of two years of wrangling over recycling and positions Houston to pay less per ton to recycle.

Houstonians still have to wait another 14 months before putting bottles or bags in their green curbside bins, however, while the city’s chosen contractor builds a new processing facility.

To bridge the gap, the city plans to renegotiate its existing, costlier recycling agreement, which expires in April.

“From a financial point of view, it is a much better deal for the city of Houston,” Mayor Sylvester Turner said, praising the deal with the Spanish firm FCC. “In terms of technology, it meets what our needs are and what we have asked for.”


Rosanne Barone, Houston program director for the advocacy group Texas Campaign for the Environment, lauded the city for “heading in the right direction” on recycling.

“This shows the mayor is committed to continuing moving forward to make the city of Houston more sustainable. We’re so happy glass is going to be back, and so happy and surprised and excited that plastic bags are now going to be included,” Barone said. “The next step is just to keep moving forward: To keep including more materials, to expand curbside pickup to apartments and businesses.”

See here and here for the background. CMs Knox, Stardig, and Kubosh were No votes, but CM Dave Martin, who had previously been a critic of the deal, voted Yes. I know a lot of people will be happy to have curbside pickup of glass back, though that will likely mean the end of one new business that emerged to fill that gap. Getting curbside pickup for plastic bags, which San Antonio has been doing since 2014, is a nice bonus. As Rosanne Barone says, let this be another step in the journey forward. Houstonia has more.

Paxton seeks to overturn all local bag ban laws

It’s up to the Supreme Court to decide whether he gets it or not.

Attorney General Ken Paxton on Thursday filed paperwork urging the Texas Supreme Court to eliminate plastic bag bans across Texas, including Austin’s.

Paxton is seeking for the court to affirm an earlier decision that overturned a bag ban in Laredo. However, he also wants to court to expand the ruling to eliminate all bag bans across the state.

“Texas must be empowered to enforce its statewide solution of waste disposal,” the brief said. “To give full meaning to the Legislature’s directive about the management of waste, the Court should clarify that municipalities cannot pass waste management duties onto consumers by banning packaging or containers.”


Paxton said the Texas Health and Safety Code prohibits cities from creating bag bans that restrict the sale or use of a waste container.

“Municipalities do not get to violate Texas law merely because they don’t like it,” Paxton said in a news release. “We’re asking the Texas Supreme Court to uphold the law so that the ruling can be used to invalidate similar ordinances across Texas.”

See here and here for background on the Laredo case. The bag law was upheld by the district court and then overturned by the 4th Court of Appeals. A statewide restriction on municipal bag laws was on the Abbott anti-local-control agenda for this legislative session, but did not succeed. If Paxton and the plaintiffs against Laredo win, that won’t matter.

Greg Abbott wants to kill off cities

That’s the only way to describe it.

As state lawmakers gather for their biennial session this spring, they’re weighing whether to rein in localities that ban plastic grocery bags, extend civil rights protections to LGBTQ residents, discourage cooperation with federal immigration authorities, impose driver screening requirements for ride-sharing companies and regulate the chopping down of trees.

Those types of clashes, particularly between liberal cities and conservative states, are increasingly common throughout the country, in part because Republicans have a historically high level of control over state governments.

But in Texas, Abbott now suggests that instead of spending time and money battling these issues individually, the state should issue a “ban across the board” on municipal regulations.

“One strategy would be for the state of Texas to take a ‘rifle shot after rifle shot after rifle shot’ approach to try to override all these local regulations,” Abbott explained to the conservative audience last month. “I think it would be far simpler, and frankly easier for those of you who have to run your lives and your businesses on a daily basis, if the state of Texas adopted an overriding policy to create certain standards that must be met.”

The governor has not laid out many more details on how that approach would work, and his press office referred back to his remarks.

But one possibility, says Bennett Sandlin, executive director of the Texas Municipal League, is that the state could strip all 352 home-rule cities, which are free to enact regulations as long as they don’t expressly conflict with state law, of their home-rule powers. They would then be treated as general-rule cities, which are usually small and can regulate only areas the state specifically gives them permission to oversee.


Sandlin, from the municipal league, has naturally been an outspoken opponent of Abbott’s attacks on municipalities. He says this hostility toward cities and local control didn’t exist at the Texas Capitol before Abbott became governor.

“It’s only been since 2015 that we’ve seen this new tactic, where local control is no longer a good thing, it’s actually an evil thing,” says Sandlin. “The new good thing is now liberty from local regulations.”

I see Abbott’s antipathy towards cities as being of a piece with his antipathy towards the federal government, or a least towards the federal government when a Democrat is President. Basically, he doesn’t tolerate disagreement, and doesn’t recognize the authority of elected officials who do stuff he doesn’t like. It’s not a matter of philosophy or principle, in that he’ll have no problem with any heavyhanded federal actions as long as it’s in the service of policy he supports. Like eminent domain for a border wall, for example. Greg Abbott is about power – his power – and if cities are standing in his way, he’ll seek to crush them. I don’t believe there’s anything more to it than that.

Galveston wants a bag ban

Good luck.

Reacting to a groundswell of concern about the effect of plastic bags on the environment, Galveston is on the forefront of a statewide controversy over cities’ ability to ban plastic bags that are killing turtles, birds and fouling beaches.

A proposed ordinance with unanimous City Council support and strong community backing faces fierce opposition from outside forces, including conservative think tanks and plastic bag manufacturers who have already sent threatening letters.


Not all businesses support the ban, but it has the backing of the influential Galveston Hotel and Lodging Association. “As business operators we typically don’t like this type of business regulation,” said Steve Cunningham, association president and manager of the Hotel Galvez. “But being on the Gulf, this one is necessary because of the damage to the wildlife and the environment.”

City Attorney Don Glywasky drafted the Galveston ordinance to avoid the legal pitfalls encountered by cities such as Laredo. The Laredo bag ban was challenged under the 1993 Solid Waste Disposal law that bars local governments from adopting regulations to “prohibit or restrict, for solid waste management purposes, the sale or use of a container or package in a manner not authorized by state law.”

Glywasky believes Galveston is unique. “I don’t really see that this is a solid waste management issue,” he said. “If we can cut down on some of the plastic bags that go into the marine environment, that is not something for the purpose of solid waste, it is for the protection of the marine environment on which we depend.”

That argument drew no sympathy from an influential conservative organization, the Texas Public Policy Foundation. James Quintero, director of the foundation’s Center for Local Governance and Think Local Liberty, said Galveston’s proposed ordinance conflicts with state law.

“Our position would be that Galveston’s ordinance, no matter what the stated reason would be, is still prohibiting containers,” said Bryan Mathew, policy analyst for Texas Public Policy Foundation. “In our view, a lot of local governments have been attempting to regulate out of bounds by hiding under the term of local control.”

Mathew called anything that smacks of what Gov. Greg Abbott lamented were attempts to make Texas more like California “out of bounds.”

“Texas is being California-ized and you may not even be noticing it,” Abbott said last year during remarks at a Public Policy Foundation gathering, where he warned of “a patchwork quilt of bans and rules and regulations that is eroding the Texas model.”

That erosion would include anything that hinders “people from being able to sell and buy with minimal government regulation and a low tax burden,” Mathew said.

Mathew saw no contradiction with the traditional conservative support for local control, arguing that local control refers to legislatures, not local governments.

“Utter hogwash,” said Zach Trahan, spokesman for Texas Campaign for the Environment. “They made it up this last year to justify their abandonment of local control.”

Yeah, let’s be clear that the “conservative” principle at work here is “because we said so”. Local control is great up to the point where localities do things that displeases authoritarians like Greg Abbott and the TPPF, thus requiring they be brought to heel. I think Galveston has perfectly good reasons for wanting to regulate plastic bags, but the court ruling against Laredo’s bag ordinance does not bode well for its future.

Paxton sues Brownsville over bag fee

Of course he does.


Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton is wading into another fight over local control; this one about plastic bags at grocery stores.

The Republican on Wednesday sued the city of Brownsville over its $1 per-bag fee, started in 2011 to cut down on waste, calling it an “illegal sales tax.”

“Clearly, Brownsville is raising taxes on its citizens through this unlawful bag fee,” Paxton said in a statement. “The rule of law must be upheld, and state law is clear – bags may not be taxed.”


The lawsuit, filed in Cameron County, is Paxton’s first attempt to thwart city efforts to curb waste by charging for bags or banning them. He joins the Texas Public Policy Foundation, the powerful conservative group, in that broad effort.

The Brownsville bag fee was passed in 2011, but Paxton is only getting involved now that an appeals court has overturned Laredo’s bag law. You would think that since cities are responsible for garbage collection that cities ought to have a fair amount of leeway to take measures to minimize and optimize that task, but then you would not be Ken Paxton or his meddling enablers at the TPPF. Why is a fee for plastic bags different than a fee for (say) heavy trash pickup or disposal of toxic chemicals? I’m pretty sure the answer to that question will be “it just is” and “because we said so”. If we want different outcomes, we need different leaders.

Laredo plastic bag ban overturned



The Fourth Court of Appeals on Wednesday sided with merchants and free-market groups who argued that Laredo’s ban on single-use bags is illegal because it is pre-empted by state law regulating solid waste disposal.

The 2-1 ruling overturned a lower court’s decision, the latest setback for environmentalists and advocates of local control in Texas.

Laredo, which estimates it once went through some 120 million plastic bags each year, is among several Texas cities — including Austin, Fort Stockton and Port Aransas — that have sought to regulate them to reduce waste.

The city argued that its ban was designed to beautify the city and reduce clogs in storm drains, not to manage solid waste as barred by the state law.

The lawsuit, filed by the Laredo Merchants Association, was the first challenge to such a ban to be heard in court. And it triggered briefs from 20 Texas lawmakers, a prominent free-market group and the Texas Municipal League — who squabbled over cities’ power to regulate commerce.

Wednesday’s ruling only affects Laredo’s ordinance for now, but it gives legal momentum to bag ban opponents elsewhere.


The state law in question is a small piece of Texas’ Health and Safety Code. Local governments, it says, can’t adopt a regulation to “prohibit or restrict, for solid waste management purposes, the sale or use of a container or package in a manner not authorized by state law.”

Laredo contended that its bag ban’s purpose — “prevention of litter” — did not fall within the “management purposes” barred under the law.

The appeals court disagreed.

“The Ordinance does exactly what the Act intends to prevent — regulate the sale or use of plastic bags for solid waste management purposes,” Justice Marialyn Barnard wrote for the majority.

See here for the background. I’m sorry, I know I’m not a lawyer, but this is a ridiculous reading of the law. You can see here for the bill in question, and see here for its text. I’d bet you a dollar right now that if you tracked down the key people on that bill – author, sponsor, and conference committee members – none of them would claim it was their intent to forbid cities from banning or taxing plastic bags. The idea never would have occurred to them. It just boggles my mind that people who claim to be “conservatives”, who claim to decry “judicial activism”, who claim to oppose “big government meddling”, could view this as a victory for their principles. Do we want the Legislature to set the solid waste pickup schedules for cities like Laredo, too? I don’t get this at all. But here we are, and far too many of our Republican legislative overlords can’t wait to get to Austin in January and pass bills to do more things like this. This is where we are these days.

By the way, to continue with my hobby horse about the appeals courts and the opportunity that this year’s election provides: That 2-1 decision? The two are both Republicans, and the one is a Democrat. Now, there’s nothing that would keep the Supreme Court from overruling a 2-1 decision that had gone the other way, but still. This is what I’m talking about.

Plastic bag litigation update

This could be a big deal.


Is a plastic bag a container? Does the definition of “solid waste management” include litter control?

If a state appeals court answers yes to both of those questions, regulations on plastic bags in several Texas cities — including Austin, Fort Stockton, and Port Aransas, which ban the bags, and Brownsville, which requires businesses to charge customers a $1 fee for the bags — could be in danger.

The Fourth Court of Appeals in San Antonio heard oral arguments Tuesday in Laredo Merchants Association v. City of Laredo, in which the merchants claim the city’s ban on single-use bags is illegal because existing state law regulating solid waste disposal preempts it.

The law in question is a small piece of Texas’ Health and Safety Code. Section 361.0961, passed into law by the 1993 Solid Waste Disposal Act, says that local governments can’t adopt regulation to “prohibit or restrict, for solid waste management purposes, the sale or use of a container or package in a manner not authorized by state law.” Arguments on Tuesday focused on the definitions of several phrases in the law, especially “container or package” and “solid waste management,” and what, precisely, the Legislature had intended.

The merchants’ case is the first challenge to a Texas municipality’s bag ordinance to make it to court. The Texas Retailers Association filed a suit against Austin’s bag ban in 2013 but later withdrew its petition, and Dallas repealed its bag fee after plastic bag manufacturers sued last year.

The Laredo merchants sued the city in March 2015, and appealed to the Fourth Court after the 341st Judicial District Court in Webb County sided with the city last June. A victory for the merchants could mean the overturning of local bag regulations across the state, while a win for Laredo could encourage other cities to pass regulations of their own.


On its face, the case is a fight over flimsy pieces of plastic. But the series of amicus briefs filed on each side establish that a much weightier issue is at stake: How much power do local governments have to establish regulations that affect commerce? Three Texas state senators and 17 state representatives, all Republicans, filed an amicus brief last week in support of the merchants, arguing, like the Texas Public Policy Foundation, that state law preempts the bag ban. The Texas Municipal League filed a brief in support of the city. Executive director Bennett Sandlin told the Tribune that the bag issue is one where local control is particularly important because different cities have different environmental concerns; Fort Stockton, for example, cited cattle deaths from ingesting plastic as a reason for the bag ban.

The implications of the local control dispute go beyond plastic bags and extend to ridesharing, energy, rent control, and other areas where municipalities have sought to pass stringent regulations. Last May, Gov. Greg Abbott signed into law House Bill 40, which limited local regulation of drilling activities after Denton voted to ban hydraulic fracking in the city. Recently, legislators have vowed to address local rules on ridesharing companies like Uber and Lyft.

“We’ve got a Legislature that used to believe in local control and now, some of them, all they believe is control of the locals,” Sandlin said. “We’re facing it not just in plastic bags but any number of issues.”

You can say that again. I’ve blogged a bunch about plastic bags, but this lawsuit had escaped my notice till now. I fully expect the issue to be on the agenda for the Lege in 2017 no matter what happens here. It’s not that Texas Republicans love regulating individual behavior, it’s that they do not recognize as legitimate any form of governance that does things they don’t approve of. They sue the feds, and now the cities are squarely in their sights. Look at the words of two-bit authoritarians like Sen. Don Huffines, who was quoted again in this story, and ask yourself whatever happened to the Republican brand of “small government”. Whatever else these guys are now, that ain’t it.

It’s hard out here on a recycler, part 2

As if they didn’t have enough to deal with.

As low commodity prices have left recyclers short on cash to invest in technological upgrades, product manufacturers are coming out with new types of packaging that make business even tougher.

These products include lighter-weight plastic bottles, resealable pouch containers and other items that are popular with consumers and often better for the environment because they require less energy to produce and transport. Water bottles are made with less plastic now, for example, and thin plastic film is replacing heavier packaging.

But poor consumer education means that items like trash, grocery and dry cleaning bags end up in recyclers’ sorting facilities where they don’t belong and can jam machines.

“Flexible packaging has a very positive environmental footprint,” said Chaz Miller, director of policy and advocacy at the National Waste & Recycling Association. “Very hard to recycle, however, so there’s a trade-off there.”

Clear plastic pouches also have become popular. In addition to their convenient zip-close tops, they use less material. But in sorting facilities, machines often mistake the flattened pouches for paper and end up placing them in the wrong place. Thinner plastic bottles are now more easily flattened, too.


For recyclers, the challenge remains in keeping consumers educated about film and other materials that don’t belong in recycling bins.

“With more complexity in materials that consumers are purchasing, it makes it a lot harder for customers to know what they can recycle and what they can’t, so I think it makes it harder to ensure that we get the right materials in the recycling stream,” Susan Robinson, directors of government affairs for Waste Management. “It used to be a lot more simple.”

See here for the background. I don’t have anything to add here, just to note that it’s another item on the “educate the public about how to recycle” to do list.

Bill to outlaw non-discrimination ordinances filed

From The Observer:


A Fort Bend County Republican has introduced a bill that would bar cities from adopting or enforcing non-discrimination ordinances that include protected classes not contained in state law. Texas law doesn’t include sexual orientation or gender identity and expression.

As a result, state Rep. Rick Miller’s House Bill 1556 would undo LGBT protections passed by numerous cities, including Austin, Dallas, San Antonio, El Paso, Fort Worth, Houston and Plano. Altogether more than 7.5 million Texas are covered by such ordinances.

“HB 1556 will prevent local governments from expanding business regulations beyond limitations established in state law,” Miller told the Observer. “Competing and inconsistent local ordinances interfere with economic liberty and discourage business expansion. By promoting instead of restricting business growth, this bill is about job creation and an improved state economy, both of which have a direct, positive impact on Texas citizens.

“Because every private business is different, nothing in the bill prevents local businesses from voluntarily adopting their own discrimination policy not currently included in state law,” he added.

Rep. Miller’s son, Beau Miller, an openly gay 41-year-old Houston attorney, is an HIV and LGBT activist. Miller said he was “extremely disappointed” to learn about his father’s bill.

“If the bill progresses through the Legislature, I’m sure there will be a robust conversation about the impact not only on minority communities, such as the LGBT community, but also on local rule in Texas,” Beau Miller said. He also posted a response to the bill on Facebook.

Miller’s bill is the counterpoint to Sen. Jose Rodriguez’s statewide non-discrimination bill that was also filed last week. It’s a more limited approach than Sen. Don Huffines’ bill to outlaw cities, which makes it more dangerous. I imagine family gatherings at the Miller house will be a bit more awkward now, and that’s a good thing. Rep. Miller should feel bad about this. It’s an appropriate response for when one does something offensive and wrong and gets called out on it.

As we know, strangling local control has been a running theme this session, with Greg Abbott and the Republican legislature deciding that they are the only valid authority in Texas. Thankfully, there is finally starting to be some organized pushback on this.

Local Control Texas — composed of Central Texas environmentalists, workers’ rights groups and Republicans from rural areas and small cities — might be the one thing stopping a governor-inspired effort at the Capitol to target some local ordinances.

Already, Local Control Texas has had some success, getting out-of-the-way towns like Montgomery — 50 miles north of Houston — to pass or consider resolutions that call some of the proposed legislation an overreach. The effort seeks to broaden opposition beyond major cities like Austin, Dallas, Houston and San Antonio, which have passed some of the local ordinances Abbott wants to pull back.

“What looks weird to some looks like home to others who create software and startups and street art,” Austin Mayor Steve Adler told the American-Statesman in January as he sought to defend the local rules following Abbott’s swipe.

“We ask that you refrain from hindering local governments’ abilities to serve the interests of their residents,” the group’s founders have written in an open letter to state leaders and lawmakers that is posted on the group’s website,

The signees of that letter include Darren Hodges, Fort Stockton’s Mayor Pro Tem who also identifies himself as a tea partier; Lanham Lyne, a former Republican state representative and mayor from Wichita Falls who runs an oil and gas exploration business; the Greater Edwards Aquifer Alliance; the Workers Defense Project; and the Texas Campaign for the Environment.

“Austin is a bit hypocritical, complaining to Washington, D.C., and then going around and telling local communities what to do,” Hodges, who has championed a plastic-bag ban in Fort Stockton, told the American-Statesman.

Karen Darcy, a member of the North Shore Republican Women, which meets by Lake Conroe, north of Houston, says she’s called her state representative and state senator — both Republicans — to ask them to fight proposals that threaten local control.

“If the majority at a local level have a problem with something, it’s up to that jurisdiction to decide what’s best for its citizens,” she said.

The Local Control Texas website is here if you want to check it out. Their efforts are badly needed, and I definitely appreciate the Republican participation on it, since this message needs to be bipartisan. What also needs to happen is for these same Republicans to be prepared to vote against at least some of the politicians that are doing this to their cities and counties. They can pick their spots as needed, but as with many other things, until someone actually loses an election as a result of being on the wrong side of an issue like this, there won’t be any incentive to be on the right side. Consequences can be quite motivating, if they exist.

Plastic bag bans work

Someone tell Greg Abbott.


Shortly before being sworn in as governor, Greg Abbott called for doing away with local bans on plastic bags, fracking and tree-cutting that he says amount to a “patchwork quilt of bans and rules and regulations that is eroding the Texas model.”

Austin has bans on plastic bags and one of the state’s most involved tree removal ordinances. Apart from the political question of whether local-control-minded Republican lawmakers have the stomach to overturn local ordinances, there lingers a more practical matter: Have such rules been effective?

The short answer: looks like they are.

The data on Austin’s bag ban is scant — Austin Resource Recovery has only now commissioned a study of the effect of the ban, but anecdotal evidence from groups that track trash around town suggest it has had an impact.

“In my own community, around Bartholomew Park (in Northeast Austin), we always had an enormous amount of plastic bags that would gather,” said Rodney Ahart, executive director of Keep Austin Beautiful, which educates consumers about reusing plastic bags but didn’t take an official position on the ban. “Now you don’t see the plastic bags anymore.”

No retailers have been penalized or fined, said Emlea Chanslor, a spokeswoman for Austin Resource Recovery.

Fewer than 1 percent of H-E-B’s customers buy $1 emergency plastic bags at the checkout, according to the grocery store chain’s spokeswoman Leslie Sweet, suggesting the ordinance has had the intended effect of getting customers to reuse their bags.


Darren Hodges, a City Council member in the West Texas town of Fort Stockton, which has adopted a plastic bag ban of its own, had this to say in recent American-Statesman opinion piece: “I don’t know when the new governor was last in Fort Stockton, but it is certainly not becoming like California.”

You’ll have to forgive Greg Abbott; he doesn’t get out much. I don’t know if much will come of his stated intent to crush local control – it wasn’t part of his State of the State address – but I continue to marvel at the fetishization of state government over any other form. I have to think there’s some potential to turn the kind of anti-federal rhetoric that Abbott at al love to use against them, as they do (or try to do) to cities what they claim Washington does to Texas. Maybe not that much, I don’t know. But I feel like the more people see stuff like this as successful, the more open they’ll be to an argument that trying to shut it down isn’t right. It’s a start.

2015 Mayoral manifesto: Quality of life and other issues

Public safety

A few quick hits on topics that didn’t fit elsewhere.

Making Houston affordable again

Remember when Houston was an inexpensive place to live? If you haven’t been here at least a decade – more like two decades, for some neighborhoods – you probably don’t. The transformation of so many parts of Houston, especially the Inner Loop, has been a big positive in many ways, but it’s come with a big price tag. Many longtime residents of many established and historic areas have been forced out, and the vast majority of housing construction today is high end. Houston’s longstanding reputation as an affordable place to live is no longer valid, and it’s having an effect. If nothing else, you have to wonder what will happen to some of these luxury apartment/condo complexes if the price of oil stays down around $50 a barrel. Mayors of course are limited in what they can do about this sort of thing, but there are some good policy ideas to encourage affordable housing development out there. I’d at least like to know that the Mayoral candidates consider this to be something worth thinking and talking about.

Historic preservation

In 2010, City Council passed a historic preservation ordinance, after a lot of work, debate, and contentiousness. Four years later, that ordinance is still a work in progress, with tweaks being made to help developers and homeowners better understand what it means and how to follow it. What sorts of “tweaks” would the Mayoral candidates like to see made to this ordinance? More broadly, and as a tangent to the point about how many established neighborhoods have been transformed by the recent real estate boom, what can – or should – be done to protect the interests of longtime residents in these neighborhoods and the houses that gave them their character in the first place? How do you balance their interests with those of developers?

One Bin For All

I trust everyone is familiar with the One Bin For All proposal. Last year, the city received numerous RFPs to build the kind of all-in-one plant that would revolutionize solid waste management and forever put to rest Houston’s abysmally low recycling rate. At this point, we don’t know where that stands, and while Mayor Parker and Sustainability Director Laura Spanjian have steadfastly advocated for this idea, they have also said that if it isn’t feasible then the city won’t pursue it. Many environmental groups – though not all – have been critical of the One Bin plan, preferring that the city do more to expand single-stream recycling. This is a big decision that Mayor Parker and City Council will eventually make. What direction do the Mayoral candidates want them to go? Who likes the One Bin idea, and who is skeptical of it? For those in the latter group, what would they do to increase recycling in Houston? If One Bin isn’t the answer, what steps can the city take beyond encouraging recycling – such as reducing the amount of food waste being sent to landfills – to do better and spend less on garbage?

State versus city

I discussed the threat of so-called “sanctuary cities” legislation in the Public Safety entry, but that is far from the only bill that seeks to limit or dictate what cities like Houston would be allowed to do by the Legislature. From payday lending to equal rights ordinances to plastic bags to who knows what else, the Lege – egged on by Governor Abbott – has declared war on local control. Are any of the Mayoral candidates – other than Rep. Sylvester Turner, who can safely be assumed to be dealing directly with these issues – even thinking about this stuff? Because if they wait until the voters are presumed to be tuning in, it will be too late. We need to be hearing from these guys now. If they don’t like some of the items on the Legislature’s to do list, they need to say so now. If they do like these things, then we need to hear them say that, too. Either way, now is not the time to be silent. If any of these bills pass, it will have a profound effect on Houston. The next Mayor of Houston might want to get out in front of that.

I could go on, but I think that will do for now. I realize this is a long campaign, and I realize the average voter is assumed to have the attention span of a gnat. I also realize that some of these candidates don’t have fully fleshed-out positions on everything yet, though let’s be honest here – most of the declared candidates – three of whom so far are repeat customers – have been running for Mayor for many years now. They’ve just made it official now that they can raise money. They’ve all got advisers and consultants and political directors and what have you out the wazoo. Let’s put some of that brainpower to the test. Anyone can be against potholes. I want to know what these guys are for, and it’s neither unfair nor too early to start asking where they stand, at least in general, on these issues. I hope you’ll join me on that, and will do the same for the issues that are important to you.

Local control, schmocal control

From Lisa Falkenberg:

So, let me get this straight.

Government is the problem, not the solution. It’s a bumbling bureaucracy run by tyrants, cronies and other self-important suits who think they know better than you or I how to live our lives – UNLESS, of course, that bumbling bureaucracy operates under a pink dome on a well-manicured lawn in Austin.

Then, my dear reader, the government is the solution. The only solution. And if you and your local community dare to come up with your own solutions, well then, it is you who is the problem.

That seemed to be the perspective expressed by our newly elected governor, Greg Abbott, earlier this week while speaking to an influential group of conservatives at an event sponsored by the Texas Public Policy Foundation.

“Texas is being California-ized and you may not even be noticing it,” Abbott said. “This is being done at the city level with bag bans, fracking bans, tree-cutting bans. We’re forming a patchwork quilt of bans and rules and regulations that is eroding the Texas model.”

Silly me. I thought the “Texas model” was based on something called local control.

From the Express News:

Seriously, when Abbott decries the regulations that cities choose for themselves, he’s ignoring the other side of the equation. The state is so allergic to regulations, it often fails Texans. That’s why cities attempt to fill the void.

If, say, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality or the venerable Railroad Commission took the environmental impacts of fracking seriously, maybe folks in the city of Denton wouldn’t have felt compelled to pursue a fracking ban.

But beyond this, local control sort of strikes us as a Texas thing. Heck, when Abbott talks about pre-K funding, he often says districts should be able to choose how they spend those additional state funds, if they choose to pursue them. That’s local control.

From Tod Robberson:

“Our public education system is too centralized. One-size-fits-all solutions are pushed down from the top. We have too many unnecessary, unfunded mandates from Austin that tie the hands of our educators. The state should set high standards, provide the tools for success, then get out of the way.”

Those exact words were written by our incoming governor, Greg Abbott, in a guest column in May for the Waco Tribune. The fundamental message there reflects how Candidate Abbott felt about local control and, as he called it, the need for the state to “get out of the way.” So why is Abbott now reversing his philosophy and declaring that the state should intervene to circumvent local rights to govern how we live?

If Dallas, Houston or Austin wants to regulate the use of plastic bags in grocery stores, that is our business, not the state’s. That is, unless the state also wants to pick up the dime for cleanup of our roadways and waterways every time one of these bags gets discarded by a careless user. It is not enough for Abbott to declare that local ordinances shouldn’t get in the way of the free conduct of business.


Abbott seems to be maneuvering this argument in a way to justify state intervention in the regulation of gas-fracking operations. Just as is the case when local governments have a right to establish zoning rules — limits on where heavy industrial sites can be located, for example — local governments also have a right to say whether they want noisy, polluting fracking operations within their city limits. Abbott wants to take that right away.

Amazing. This is the same guy who fought so hard against increased federal intervention in our lives. When it comes to his perspective of top-down governance from Washington, he’s against it. But, somehow, he believes in the McCity concept that establishes uniform rules that must apply to all cities across the state. We all must look, smell, feel and behave the same, according to state mandate. Under Abbott’s vision, top-down governance from Austin is better than what we, the citizens of Dallas, Austin, Lubbock, Clarendon, Muleshoe, Brownsville and El Paso choose for ourselves.

Thank you, Greg Abbott, for restoring the concept of Big Government that you fought so hard in your campaign to wipe out.

I couldn’t have said it better myself.

Wake me up in June

As we prepare for the 84th Legislative session to begin, let’s pause for a moment and see what we can expect.

Greg Abbott wants to make the world safe for plastic bags.

Dan Patrick wants to cut his property taxes, and ensure that Texas never has enough money to meet its needs.

Donna Campbell wants taxpayers to subsidize private schools.

Ken Paxton is going to go to the office, sue the federal government, and go home. At least until he gets indicted for being an ethical morass. In the meantime, Dan Patrick wants to put Paxton in charge of the Public Integrity Unit. What could possibly go wrong with that?

The Senate is a cesspool.

So yeah, this session is gonna suck. It’s just a question of how much, and how permanent the damage is.

Plastic bag makers fight back

I expect they will be busy during the legislative session working to block municipal laws that tax, limit, or ban single-use plastic bags.


For years, Superbag in northwest Houston quietly manufactured the sacks that grocers and retail chains hand out to customers in the checkout line. The business garnered little attention.

Now, however, the industry that for years promoted the theme “Plastics make it possible” feels under attack, forced to justify a product that opponents have made a symbol for litter and waste.

After dozens of cities enacted bans, California in September became the first state to prohibit stores from handing out single-use plastic bags to customers, requiring them instead to purchase reusable bags or pay at least 10 cents for a paper bag or thicker plastic sack.

“Now, it’s ‘Oh, you’re the bad guy,’ ” said [Laura] Ledbetter, who oversees sales and project management at Superbag, one of Houston’s largest plastic bag manufacturers. “I feel like I’m constantly trying to educate people, and it’s sad that someone along the way taught people the wrong thing.”

The industry is starting to fight back. Led by the American Progressive Bag Alliance, bag manufacturers launched a campaign in California to collect enough signatures on a petition to force the ban to a statewide referendum.

“We are vigorously going to defend these high-paying manufacturing jobs, especially when the reasons for these plastic bag bans are based on a lot of mythology,” said Mark Daniels, alliance chairman and senior vice president of sustainability and environmental policy at Novolex, the largest paper and plastic bag manufacturer in North America. It has three plants in North Texas.

The alliance has until Dec. 30 to gather signatures from about half a million people – 5 percent of the state’s registered voters.


Proponents of bag bans say plastic bags trash the environment, pose threats to wildlife and cost municipalities millions to clean up. They argue that the country is better off if bag manufacturing jobs get replaced.

“We’re trying to create a new economy,” said Stephanie Barger, founder and executive director of Earth Resource Foundation, which helped push for the California ban.

If bans threaten companies’ business, they still have other opportunities to sell cleaner, more durable containers, like reusable sacks, said Jennie R. Romer, attorney and founder of She counsels cities on the best ways to pass bans and avoid litigation.

“People are going to have to put their products in something,” she said.

The California ban won’t shut down machines hundreds of miles away in Texas, where only a handful of cities including Austin, Laredo and South Padre Island have bans. Starting Jan. 1, Dallas will require retailers to collect an environmental fee of 5 cents for every paper and plastic sack customers use.

Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, now the state’s governor-elect, in August issued an opinion that suggested bans initiated for managing solid wastes may violate the state’s health and safety code, a ruling that could have a chilling effect on cities eyeing similar action.

But the state’s manufacturers are worried anyway.


“The more plastic stuff is banned, the more the industry is going to struggle and go away,” said Ken Holmes of American Plastic Manufacturing, a small bag manufacturer in Seattle. “And plastics are a good thing. We can’t have big-screen TVs, we can’t have computers, we can’t have toys. We can’t have a lot of stuff without plastic.”

But environmentalists say that as consumption runs rampant and landfills fill with waste, something must be done to stanch the American appetite for single-use disposable products.

“It’s not about attacking products; it’s about working to eliminate badly designed products,” Barger said. “And overall, we’re helping to practice reduce, reuse, recycle and create a zero-waste economy.”

See here for more on the AG ruling. I’m a little disappointed this story didn’t discuss what the bag makers’ legislative strategy might be, since I’m sure they have one. In addition to Dallas and its bag fee, the city of San Antonio has been discussing some kind of curb on single use plastic bags, and now collects them with curbside recycling, which is a nifty thing. The city of Houston approved a budget amendment in 2012 to “address littering by plastic bags or phasing out plastic bags city-wide”, but as far as I can tell nothing has happened since then. I for one continue to be open to the idea of a bag fee, but someone who is or wants to be Mayor needs to bring it up first.

Of course, all of this is contingent on the Lege not nullifying municipal laws on the subject. I don’t think plastic bags or their manufacturers are evil, but we live in a world where our oceans are overflowing with plastic trash, and we really ought to do something about that. Emphasizing reuse and recycling over use-once-and-throw-away sure seems like a small enough place to start for that.

Bag fees versus bag bans



If you live in Washington, you know the drill: After bagging your groceries, the checkout machine asks you how many bags you used. And if you used plastic or disposable bags (rather than bags you brought on your own), you have to pay 5 cents per bag. The District passed a law requiring as much in 2009 — a policy that states like New Jersey and New York are also considering, and that has been adopted around the world from Ireland and Scotland to South Africa.

Some localities have gone farther still — California and Hawaii have effectively banned plastic bags outright — but recent research suggests that charges or fees can also be effective (and have the added benefit of being less coercive). Moreover, it suggests that they work, at least in part, through a surprising mechanism. It’s not just the relatively minor added cost, on its own, that impels people to stop using plastic bags and to instead bring their own bags with them to the store. Rather, it’s the way this small change disrupts habitual behaviors and helps people draw a tighter linkage between the environmental awareness that they already possess, and actions in the world that actually advance that consciousness and their values.

Such is the upshot of a new study on plastic bag charges published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology by a team of Argentinian researchers, led by psychologist Adriana Jakovcevic of Buenos Aires University. Charging a relatively small amount for bags “produces changes in behavior,” says Jakovcevic, “and these changes are not only because of the economic value of the incentive — there are also some other processes at play that involve environmental concerns.”

Go read the whole thing. A new ordinance in Buenos Aires in 2012 allowed for a good natural experiment on this since only part of the metro area was subjected to a bag fee. Every time I bring the subject up here I get pushback from groups like the Texas Campaign for the Environment, who support full-on bans and argue that bag fees are not effective. I have always thought that the bag fee idea has merit and what’s more would be politically easier to accomplish. There’s already been an attempt to curtail municipal bag bans by the Legislature, and the issue is sure to come up again in this session. Maybe this is the more practical way to move forward. Read about the Buenos Aires experience and see what you think.

Abbott issues bag ban opinion

It’s complicated.


Do plastic bag bans and restrictions in cities like Austin, Laredo, and Brownsville violate Texas law?

According to an opinion issued by Attorney General Greg Abbott’s office handed down on Friday afternoon, that depends on how you define two phrases: “container or package” and “solid waste management.”

Opinions on Texas law from the attorney general’s office are not binding, though they do carry weight statewide and could make other cities reconsider possible bans or restrictions on the use of single-use bags. Abbott said outright bans on single-use bags, which have been passed in in Austin and Laredo, are legal if they weren’t passed for the purpose of “solid waste management,” which isn’t clearly defined by state statute.

When it comes to restrictions on single-use bags, like Brownsville $1 fee-per-bag or Dallas’ recently passed nickel-per-bag fee, Abbott has a narrower view: He doesn’t think Texas law allows fees for bags at all, though it’s still not totally clear if single-use bags are indeed “containers or packages” in the law his office refers to.

The Texas law in question, from the state’s Solid Waste Disposal Act, was added to the Health and Safety Code in 1993. It says that cities can’t “prohibit or restrict, for solid waste management purposes, the sale or use of a container or package in a manner not authorized by state law … [or] assess a fee or deposit on the sale or use of a container or package.”

That raises two questions: What’s a “container or package?” And what does “solid waste management” mean?

For the purposes of plastic bag bans and fees, that isn’t clear. Brian Sledge, an environmental attorney and lobbyist in Austin, said the 1993 law stemmed from backlash against new packaging that food companies were using. The packaging mixed recyclable material, like aluminum, with nonrecyclables. Cities in states like California banned the packaging, causing the companies to head to states like Texas and ask for legislation that would avoid the same problem.

“Plastic bags weren’t really on the radar screen” in 1993, said Sledge. “It’s hard to think that a bag’s not a container. It holds stuff. But I don’t think that is the intent of the statute.”

See here for the background. My layman’s opinion is that Abbott quite reasonably concluded that the 1993 law really doesn’t speak to the municipal restrictions being placed on plastic bags these days. Either the Lege can address it with a newer law, or the courts can decide when the matter comes before them. The Texas Retailers Association, which asked Rep. Dan Flynn to request the opinion and which is suing Austin and may sure Dallas, has been pushing for a state law to prevent these municipal ordinances in addition to its legal actions, so they’re working both fronts. Expect this to come up again in the 2015 Lege.

San Antonio has begun curbside recycling of plastic bags

As of August 1, to be exact.

“We are starting with a new recycling processor that can accept the bags so that allows us to add it to the list of items we can accept,” [Solid Waste Management Department Public Relations Manager Tiffany] Edwards said, adding that the move gives San Antonians another option to recycle the bags, in addition to major grocers and retailers that will typically take the bags back and recycle them.

The new recycler is Recommunity Recycling, which has its corporate headquarters in Charlotte, N.C.

Edwards said residents should take one plastic bag and stuff all the other ones in it until it is about the size of a soccer ball before tossing it in the bin.

But not all plastic bags are accepted.

“We’re telling everybody no black bags, no trash bags,” Edwards said. “We want the translucent ones. We can take dry cleaning bags, sandwich bags and Zip Loc bags, as long as the zip is taken out. Tortilla and bread bags can be recycled, just clean them and get the bread crumbs out.”

And don’t forget to take your receipts out of you grocery bags either, she said.

Black bags aren’t accepted because the bags are a different grade of plastic than the translucent ones and because workers can’t see into the bags, they pose a hazard, Edwards said.

So why start accepting plastic bags now?

“Across the nation, a lot of processors can’t take them because they get stuck in the machinery,” Edwards said.

But the city’s new processor can.

Pretty cool. San Antonio has been on a journey that began in November last year. We first heard about their plan to do curbside recycling of plastic bags in March, but they still ultimately intend to implement a ban of some kind later. They have yet to determine what direction that ban will take, but it’s in the works. You can learn more at SA Recycles and the city’s Solid Waste Management page. Note that they take all forms of plastic plus styrofoam containers in their bins; you can’t put #6 plastic in the city of Houston’s bins, though you can drop of some styrofoam at the various service centers. We need to catch up here, Houston.

SA City Council to begin the plastic bag debate

I look forward to seeing what direction they go.


City staffers Wednesday plan to recommend to the City Council’s Governance Committee that San Antonio move forward with a ban on single-use plastic and paper bags.

The recommendation comes after vetting by the Solid Waste Management Department, which researched policies in other cities across the state and the nation.

The committee, led by Mayor Julián Castro, could direct David McCary, director of the waste management department, to present his recommendations to the full council. But it’s too soon to tell what the city’s governing body might do with the proposal.

“There has not yet been a robust discussion among council members on this issue,” Castro said. “We look forward to examining the staff’s analysis and going forward from there.”

The bag-ban proposal took flight in November when Councilman Cris Medina filed a request asking that his council colleagues consider a prohibition on single-use plastic bags.


During a February round-table meeting with retail business leaders, environmentalists and others, Medina directed McCary to recommend a single approach for the council to consider.

According to city documents, those possibilities are:

  • Allow the local business community to handle the issue on its own through education and outreach;
  • Establish a fee for all distributed single-use bags, both paper and plastic;
  • Ban all single-use plastic and paper carry-out bags;
  • Approve an ordinance requiring businesses to offer incentives for customer usage of reusable bags;
  • Maintain the status quo with a continued focus on outreach to the 340,000 customers of the waste management department and inform them of an Aug. 1 start date for the city’s plastic-bag recycling program.

See here and here for the background. As we know, the city of Dallas recently adopted a bag fee, which came on the heels of a request for an AG opinion on the legality of municipal bag laws. Assuming San Antonio takes some action – and I believe they will – then the focus may shift to Houston, since every other large city will have done something except for us. Mayor Parker has a lot on her plate, but I continue to believe this issue will come up here sooner or later.

Dallas adopts plastic bag fee

A fee, not a ban.


Stores in Dallas will charge customers five cents for most kinds of plastic or paper carryout bags, under a measure approved Wednesday by the City Council.

At the urging of council member Dwaine Caraway, the council voted 8-6 to assess an “environmental fee” for single-use carryout bags. The five-cent charge takes effect Jan. 1.

Single-use bags will be banned entirely at retail outlets in city buildings and at city-sponsored events. The ban apparently would apply, for example, to gift shops at city-owned museums, American Airlines Center, even the Omni Dallas Hotel, which adjoins the Dallas convention center.

Caraway has complained for months that plastic bags, in particular, were creating litter problems throughout the city.


The Texas Retailers Association opposed the bag fee, even though stores will keep 10 percent of the money they collect, and even though the measure approved Wednesday is less stringent than the outright ban on single-use bags that Caraway originally sought.

Gary Huddleston, a member of the association’s executive committee, said the fee will be burdensome to stores and customers alike.

“We personally believe the solution to litter in the city of Dallas is a strong recycling program and also punishing the people that litter, and not punishing the retailer,” said Huddleston, director of consumer affairs for the Kroger Co.

Stores will have to devote administrative resources to tracking the fees, he said, and the nickel that customers must pay for each disposable bag is a nickel that otherwise might have been used “to buy more product in my store.”

City officials said the money collected from the bag fee will go toward enforcement and education efforts. Those efforts could cost $250,000 and require the hiring of 12 additional employees, said Jill Jordan, an assistant city manager.

After the council vote, Huddleston would not rule out a legal challenge by the retailers association. Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott has already been asked to weigh in on the legality of Texas cities’ banning of single-use bags. Council member Sheffie Kadane, who opposed the five-cent fee, said the city can almost count on being sued by retailers or plastic bag manufacturers or both.

See here for some background on the debate in Dallas. As you know, AG Greg Abbott has been asked for an opinion about the legality of municipal bag laws. This opinion was requested by State Rep. Dan Flynn, on behalf of the Texas Retailers Association and its CEO, Ronnie Volkenning. The Trib reports on environmental groups responding to this request.

Supporters of the ordinances say plastic bags harm the environment. The Texas Campaign for the Environment has been one of the most vocal supporters of the ordinances. “We want the attorney general to stay out of this issue altogether,” said Robin Schneider, the group’s executive director.

The Texas Municipal League was the first to submit a brief to the attorney general’s office. The brief included a statement from state Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, from 2011 in which he argued for local control over the issue.

“For the state to determine what a city’s problems are or solutions that it may have or may not have is a little bit of an overextension of the Legislature,” Seliger said.

Because the cities are responsible for supplying plastic bags, they should be able to determine if they wish to ban them, he said in an interview.

“They spend much more time as garbage than they do as carriers of groceries anyway,” Seliger added.

The Texas Municipal League argued in its brief that a plastic bag should not be classified as a “container” or a package” — the two words specifically mentioned in the Heath and Safety Code.

“A plastic bag is not a container or a package, but merely the means by which a container or a package is transported,” the brief said.

Volkening said the most environmental position would be to encourage the recycling of plastic bags, not banning their use.

That may be Volkening’s opinion, but as you may recall from Tyson Sowell’s guest post here, groups like the Texas Campaign for the Environment think the ban is the way to go. In fact, they’d push for a ban on paper bags as well. Regardless, I like Seliger’s statement, which you would think would be appealing to conservatives. And it is for many, but there’s a significant number for whom local control is only for policies they like. We’ll see which group is happy with Abbott’s forthcoming opinion.

AG opinion sought on bag bans



As proponents continue to tout the benefits of banning plastic bags, the debate over whether Texas cities like Austin actually have the ability to enact such ordinances has made its way to the attorney general’s office.

In a letter seeking an opinion from Attorney General Greg Abbott, state Rep. Dan Flynn, R-Canton, questioned whether the city bans are in compliance with the state’s health and safety laws.

“At least nine cities in Texas have enacted bans on plastic bags and adopted fees on replacement bags in recent years,” the letter stated. “This appears to be in contravention of state law.”

The letter, which was received last week by the attorney general’s office, asks the office to interpret a specific section of the Texas Health and Safety Code. The section states that a municipal district may not pass legislative restrictions or charge fees relating to the consumption of a “container or package” for waste management purposes.

“I can’t begin to tell you how many phone calls we received about the legality of the bans,” said Flynn, whose district does not have any communities that have imposed bag bans. Even though it doesn’t affect him directly, “there are a lot of people who are really inconvenienced by it,” he said.

One of the most vocal opponents of bag bans, the Texas Retailers Association, approached Flynn about writing the letter to the attorney general’s office.

“It sure looks to us that the plain meaning of the statute’s language is that the state meant to stop local governments from adopting ordinances that prohibit or restrict the use of these bags,” said Ronnie Volkening, the president and CEO of the retailers association. “If the state Legislature enacted that language, then the cities are in fact engaging in an activity that they should not.”


The push for an opinion from the attorney general’s office comes a year after the retailers group filed a lawsuit targeting Austin’s plastic bag ban last February. But the group dropped the lawsuit after Austin officials asked it to disclose information on the sales of plastic bags.

“They were asking for proprietary information that retailers will not disclose for sensitive reasons,” Volkening said, adding that it would be very expensive for the association to contest the request. “Rather than disclosing that information, we felt it was necessary to drop the suit.”

A copy of that now-dropped lawsuit is here. Rep. Flynn’s letter basically recapitulates its arguments. I assume that the cities that have adopted these bans have attorneys at their disposal who can interpret state law and advise their clients how likely they are to get their posteriors handed to them in court some day, so I presume there is a counterargument to be made here. If any lawyers would like to weigh in on that, I’d be delighted to hear it. Whether the timing of this request has anything to do with the developments in San Antonio or not I couldn’t say, but thanks to Rep. Flynn we can now say with confidence that it is possible to carry water in a plastic bag.

San Antonio plastic bag ban update

Here’s an update on the city of San Antonio’s effort to regulate plastic bag usage, which may include a ban. It’s written by San Antonio City Council member Cris Medina, who is the point person for the effort.


Late last year, after multiple conversations with members of the Citizen’s Environmental Advisory Committee (members are appointed by each City Council member and the Mayor), I became aware of the environmental hazards of single-use plastic bags.

For some time, I had seen plastic bags strewn about our parks, caught in trees, and on frequent occasions, I had picked up countless deteriorating plastic bags during community clean-up events. I was well aware of the eyesore that the 335 plastic bags each American uses per year (U.S. International Trade Commission) cause. What I soon came to learn was that single-use plastics are not biodegrading in our landfills. In fact, many of them are making their way into our waterways and wreaking havoc when wildlife ingest shards of bags.

I also learned about the manufacturing process of plastic bags, which requires an incredible amount of energy, often coming from the burning of fossil fuels. Creation, transport, and use of these bags just one time seems wasteful, wouldn’t you agree?


Recycling is an option, but it is not one that people often use. In 2012, the city’s Solid Waste Management Department initiated a pilot project which had two goals: reduce the number of single-use plastic bags sold at the point-of-sale with the following retailers: JC Penny, H-E-B, Walmart, Target and Walgreens; and increase recycling of single-use plastic bags. The department spent nearly $400,000 on a marketing campaign to convey and encourage implementation of these goals. A 30 percent increase in recycling at the collection bins provided by retailers on-site was accomplished, while no change in the number of single-use plastic bags was had at the point-of-sale. These results mirror results in other cities across the United States.

The reality is that the nearly 100 cities across the county have transitioned away from single-use plastic bags, yet those same cities saw very little increase in recycling curbside or otherwise. San Jose, California, found that only four percent of single-use plastic bags are recycled (City of San Jose, California). The moral of the story here is that while recycling is possible, it is an expensive investment and it is rarely used.

Recycling will be part of our transition. In August of this year, the city will contract with a new recycling vendor who has the proper equipment to sort single-use plastic bags from our blue collection bins.

Through proper handling, San Antonio citizens will be able to recycle single-use plastic bags and other plastic bags, like the ones your produce comes in, by balling multiple bags together and placing that combined apparatus into blue recycle bins. This is an exciting option for San Antonio.

The issue was first discussed last year, and came up again in February but was put off till this month. As we know, multiple cities have taken various approaches to dealing with plastic bags in the past couple of years in Texas. I’m not aware of any studies that have been done to gauge the effectiveness of each approach. I feel confident that Houston will deal with this sooner or later, and it would be nice to know more about how it has gone so far in other cities. One question that I haven’t seen answered anywhere and which is of interest to me as a dog owner is, what is the recommended way to deal with cleaning up after one’s dog if plastic bags are no longer widely available? I presume there’s something, but I haven’t come across it and I haven’t got the fortitude to Google for it right now. Anyone have personal experience with this?

San Antonio begins plastic bag ban consideration

I very much look forward to seeing how this goes.


San Antonio spends about $1.3 million annually cleaning up plastic bags, while an estimated $25 million is spent across the state, [District 7 Councilman Cris] Medina’s Council Consideration Request says.

Council members Ray Lopez, Ivy Taylor, Rey Saldaña and Shirley Gonzales have signed Medina’s request, which ensures the proposal will be discussed by the council.

Medina’s proposal isn’t the city’s maiden voyage into dealing with plastic bags.

In 2011, leaders here kicked off the “Change is in the Bag” — a voluntary pilot program in which H-E-B, Target, Walgreens, JCPenny and Wal-Mart partnered with the city. Stores set out receptacles to collect used plastic bags. City leaders have said anecdotally that the voluntary program, which officially ended in December 2012, was a failure.

While recycling rates increased by about 30 percent, the usage of plastic bags didn’t drop. Officials had hoped to reduce usage by 25 percent.


Earlier this year, the San Antonio Citizens Environmental Advisory Committee, a group appointed to advise the council on environmental issues, passed a resolution supporting a bag ban.

The resolution says a ban would improve community aesthetics, help tourism and property values and enhance public health and protect wildlife while lowering landfill and clean-up costs.

Texas Retailers Association CEO Ronnie Volkening said such bans are cumbersome for customers, threaten Texas jobs and don’t help the environment.

“A ban isn’t a progressive thought,” he said. “It shuts down innovation.”

Bag bans tend to focus on grocery stores and some big-box retailers but exempt many other types of plastic bags, including ice bags, bread bags, produce bags and other “plastic film,” such as dry-cleaning bags.

The city of Georgetown has implemented a program that allows residents to collect their single-use plastic bags in a yellow “stuffer” bag, which, once filled, can be tossed into their recycling carts. Volkening said workers at the recycling plant then pull the yellow bags to be recycled.

Single-stream recycling — the process employed by Georgetown and San Antonio — can’t handle plastic bags because they jam the sorting machine. Georgetown’s work-around allows residents to discard their bags with their soda cans and newspapers without jamming the sorting machine.

I don’t understand the expectation that bag usage would drop if recycling were made easier. The ready availability of recycling for aluminum cans and plastic bottles doesn’t have any effect on how much Diet Coke I drink. Perhaps if they’re measuring how many new bags were bought by retailers, that might tell us something useful. But I don’t see how the number of bags being used by customers would be a factor.

Recycling bags is an option I’ll return to in a minute. This Express News story goes into some more detail about the possibilities San Antonio is studying.

More than 150 localities across the U.S., including Brownsville and Austin, have bag regulations, according to the Surfrider Foundation, an advocate for the protection of oceans and beaches.

Medina, who hopes to have a specific policy recommendation within 90 days, said he favors a ban but would be open to a fee charged for bags.


As officials draft an ordinance, they will have plenty of models to examine. Cities have pursued various methods, all with the goal of cutting bag use and changing people’s bag behavior. Some ordinances target paper bags in addition to plastic. Some are outright bans, while in other cities, customers have to pay a fee if they need a bag from a retailer.

Officials in cities that passed ordinances said they faced challenges from retailers, chemical companies and bag manufacturers in addition to residents’ opposition.

But despite some initial confusion when the bans or fees first went into effect, they said they rarely hear complaints now and have found the bans are helping reduce the problems of bag litter.

“In initial conversations, there was some pushback,” said Megan Ponder, a policy analyst at the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability in Portland, Ore. “We haven’t seen a lot of pushback from the public recently.”

Portland’s first ordinance passed in 2011 and applied mainly to supermarkets and large pharmacies. It was expanded in 2012 to all retailers and food providers. Now, 5,000 businesses covered by the plastic-bag ban can only provide recycled paper bags or reusable bags.

(Bans tend to exempt bags used for produce and meat at grocery stores, newspapers and dry cleaning, among other purposes.)

The cities that say their policies have been successful mostly back that up with anecdotal evidence. In Seattle, initial surveys of businesses showed many are reporting using fewer bags and residents say not as many are floating around.

“In the downtown area, you really see none,” said Dick Lilly, manager for waste prevention at the solid waste utility in Seattle.


The Texas Retailers Association favors more wide-ranging efforts than bans that get cities, stores and consumers to come up with solutions that are “least disruptive to the marketplace,” said Ronnie Volkening, TRA’s president and CEO.

He said retailers and cities should expand public education campaigns to teach residents more about how to recycle and reuse their bags.

“In our view, bans are not comprehensive,” he said. “They are regressive in that, no matter how you slice it, the cost of either acquiring and maintaining, washing and keeping clean reusable bags is a cost borne disproportionately by lower-income people and families.”

To counter the cost, some cities with bag bans have given away thousands of free bags. H-E-B already gives out hundreds of thousands of free bags statewide every year, Campos said.

Groups that likely will support the measure include the San Antonio River Authority, which is left to clean up plastic bags in addition to other litter that gathers in and along the region’s waterways after storms.

It would be nice if there were more than just anecdotal data about the effect of the various bag bans and fees that have been passed in other cities so far. I’m sure some approaches are more effective than others, but in the absence of any objective metrics, how can we know which way is best? I’d hate to put a lot of time, effort, and political capital into a plan that doesn’t do much. I’m generally skeptical of complaints from business associations in situations like this because they pretty much always complain. They do have a point about the bans not being comprehensive, in that they only affect some businesses and some bags. This is where I come back to the recycling option. You can recycle plastic bags, you just can’t put them in single stream collection bins because they gum up the separators. Georgetown has one solution for that, but it obviously involves a comprehensive education push and a commitment by residents to take an extra step. You have to do that now, in Houston or anywhere else, to collect plastic bags and wrappings of all kinds and then drop them off for recycling. Georgetown’s solution involves less effort, but it’s still a change of habit for people, and that’s never easy. Still, I feel like solving the single stream collection problem so that bags can be treated like any other recyclable has the potential to have the biggest effect. I don’t know what the best answer is, but I agree with the E-N editorial board that more study is needed, and I believe that doing something is better than doing nothing, even if something better comes along later.

Bag ban update

Having survived legislative meddling, bag bans are back on the agenda in Texas cities.


Six months after Austin’s ban on most disposable plastic and paper bags took effect at checkout counters across the city, political fights are raging in Laredo and Dallas to follow suit.

In Dallas, the debate over a single-use bag ban (for both paper and plastic bags that don’t have a certain amount of recyclable material) has led to allegations of false information within the City Council and is likely to drag on for months in that body’s Quality of Life committee. Still, many consider the fact that it’s being debated at all to be progress; in 2008, an ordinance on bags was proposed and quickly tabled.

The political environment may have changed further, now that the Texas Retailers Association has decided to drop its lawsuit against the city of Austin’s bag ban. The association had alleged the ordinance violated Texas’ Health and Safety Code.

“It could have had a chilling effect,” Jeremy Brown, and environmental law research fellow at the University of Texas at Austin, said of the lawsuit. “You’re a city and you want to avoid litigation generally. Now that the lawsuit has been dropped, he said, “maybe there’s an impression of reduced political risk.”


In Laredo, an outright bag ban appears to be off the table. Instead, a “reduction ordinance” is more likely, and now the argument is over what form such a law might take. Should the city adopt a fee-per-bag structure, as was recently done in Washington, D.C. and Montgomery County, Md., where shoppers pay 5 cents per single-use bag? Or should it go the Brownsville route, where shoppers pay $1 for an unlimited number of bags? (In each of those cases, retailers keep a small portion of the fee, and the rest of the money goes to a public environmental cleanup fund.)

H-E-B is lobbying hard for the dollar/unlimited option. That’s because “if it’s a per-bag fee, each bag needs to be scanned,” said Linda Tovar, spokeswoman for the company’s border region corporate office. “So the time that it takes for a cashier to process and order will be longer than what a usual process may be.”

Environmental advocates say there’s no logic behind that mechanism. In Brownsville, the first Texas city to pass a single-use bag ordinance, officials hoped the $1 charge would be temporary, since it would provide an incentive for customers to bring their own reusable bags. But revenue from the fee has actually tripled from 2011 to 2012, suggesting habits weren’t changing and leading to allegations of a “slush fund” for the city, which has raised more than $2 million from the law.

Companies say they’d rather see voluntary programs and education campaigns, pointing out that a patchwork of different city ordinances are difficult to follow and encourage shoppers to cross city lines for cheaper bags. So far, though, such efforts have not had much success. Austin spent nearly $1 million on an education campaign for reusable bags before abandoning it, after failing to reach a declared goal of reducing plastic bag use by 50 percent.

I look forward to seeing how these fights play out. As you may have noticed, Houston is not currently among the cities contemplating this action. I feel pretty confident that it will eventually come up, so I’m hoping that the other cities that are dealing with it will have figured out the best way to do so. Got to be some benefit to trailing the pack, right? We’ll see.

From the “What’s it to you”? department

Freshman Rep. Drew Springer likes meddling in other people’s business.

Ironically, the mask was made from recycled plastic bags

Austin’s recycling director urged the Legislature on Wednesday night to allow the city’s plastic bag ordinance to continue without state interference.

Bob Gedert, director of Austin Resource Recovery, told the House Committee on Urban Affairs that he had visited 300 store managers in the past three weeks and that the ban on using the bags is going smoothly.

“They are adapting very well,” Gedert said.

The committee heard testimony on House Bill 2416 that the author, state Rep. Drew Springer, R-Muenster, calls the “Shopping Bag Freedom Act” because it would outlaw bag bans such as the one passed by the Austin City Council.

“This is a decision by a local community,” Gedert said. “Please respect that.”

What business is it of the Legislature, you may wonder, to tell the city of Austin – or any of the other Texas cities that have passed bag bans – that they cannot deal with their litter problem in this fashion? Why, it’s all about your God-given freedom to clog your city’s drainage system. The Observer explains.

You’ve probably heard about Rep. Drew Springer’s ”Shopping Bag Freedom Act” by now. Springer’s proposal to outlaw local plastic shopping bag bans has gotten plenty of attention in Texas and from national media.

Springer filed his bill days after Austin began banning plastic shopping bags earlier this month, following the environmentalist lead of cities like San Francisco. Tonight, Springer had a chance to sell his bill to the House Urban Affairs Committee. If we let cities ban plastic bags, he wondered, what else might they do away with?

In a conversation with the Observer before the hearing, the Republican freshman from Muenster said he thinks the government has “crossed the line” of what local control should allow.

“The city, I believe, has overstepped their role and my bill brings in freedoms back to the individuals to make that choice with their merchant,” he said. “So it actually creates freedom, rather than imposing more on people.”

See? He’s manufacturing freedom! Just try to outsource that.

I have enough of a problem with legislators meddling in the affairs of their own hometowns. Messing with other cities just flabbergasts me. What’s it to Rep. Springer how Austin conducts its business? And as BOR and I have noted, it’s not just Austin, as Rep. Springer wants to deny Plfugerville ISD the right to extend domestic partner benefits to its employees. Last I checked, the people of Austin and Pflugerville elected the representatives who made those decisions. They’re free to replace them with representatives who will reverse those decisions if they want to. Pflugerville ISD arguably violated state law, though that will hopefully be mooted by SCOTUS, but Austin did nothing provocative. Why is this any of Rep. Drew Springer’s concern?

One more thing:

John Horton, a University of Texas student and chairman of the Young Conservatives of Texas, testified for Springer’s bill.

“When you start to ban stuff, it creates a slippery slope,” he said. “What are we going to ban next?”

Well, let’s see, there’s abortion, birth control, Planned Parenthood, sex education, three-term Governors, ethnic history courses, federal gun control laws…I’m sure I’m forgetting a few things. Are you and I watching the same session, John?

Austin bag ban lawsuit filed

This bears watching.

The Texas Retailers Association is suing the city of Austin over a disposable bag ban set to take effect [today], saying the ban violates state law and should be tossed out.

The ban will prohibit all Austin retailers from offering thin, so-called single-use paper and plastic bags at checkout counters.


The lawsuit, filed Monday in Travis County district court, says the ban violates part of the state’s health and safety code that prevents local governments from banning or restricting “for solid waste management purposes, the sale or use of a container or package in a manner not authorized by state law.”

The retailers’ group said it “has not been able to discover a single state law authorizing the banning of bags in any manner, let alone the manner adopted by the city,” the lawsuit says.

The bag ban will also hurt businesses financially because many still have single-use bags in stock that they’ll have to store or dispose of, they are required to create signs alerting customers to the ban, and they might lose customers to nearby cities that don’t have bag bans, the lawsuit says.

The retailers association is not seeking an injunction — a short-term ruling — to try to stop the ban by Friday, president Ronnie Volkening said. For now, it is still encouraging its Austin members to comply with the ban, he said.

But the association wants a judge to decide whether the ban is valid and can be enforced in the long run, Volkening said.

Austin passed its ban one year ago, making it the most expansive ban on single-use bags in the state. If the plaintiffs win, it will be interesting to see what if any effect this has on other cities that have enacted various ordinances to reduce or eliminate plastic bag usage. Conversely, if Austin wins, it’ll be interesting to see if this emboldens other cities to pass their own ordinances.I’ll keep an eye on it.

The dumbest plastic bag argument I’ve seen so far

This story is about the city of San Francisco rolling out a new ordinance intended to further limit the use of disposable bags by retailers. I’ve heard a variety of arguments against the different versions of this kind of law, but this one takes the cake.

Starting Oct. 1, BYOB in San Francisco will take on a whole new meaning.

Then, shoppers will have to bring their own bags when buying booze – and just about anything else – or incur a charge.

The city’s new Checkout Bag Ordinance requires that all retailers, with the exception of restaurants, bakeries and take-out joints (they don’t have to make the change until 2013), switch from plastic bags to paper or compostable and charge customers a dime for each sack.


Jon Ballesteros, vice president of public policy for the San Francisco Travel Association, said he hopes merchants are transparent about the charge. Tourism in San Francisco is an $8 billion business, and Ballesteros wants to make sure visitors are not caught off guard by the ordinance.

But Stephen Joseph, a lawyer for the Save the Plastic Bag coalition, a contingent of bag manufacturers, distributors and citizens, who unsuccessfully sued the city over the ordinance and plans to appeal, said the charge is bound to affect tourism.

“This is no way to welcome visitors,” he said. “Furthermore, it’s going to cause more garbage. What’s going to happen is they’re going to buy those paper bags – it’s not like they’re going to travel to San Francisco with reusable ones – and then they’re going to dump their bags when they get on their plane to leave town.”

Whether reusable bags are eco-friendly or not, Joseph argues that they are “horribly” unsanitary.

“San Francisco is encouraging people to put their food in the same bags they carry their gym clothes, the same bags in which they carry their underwear,” he said. “These bags don’t get washed, and they are filthy.”

Let me count the ways that this is silly.

1. We’re talking a dime a bag. There are legitimate concerns about such a surcharge being a burden on the poor, but I think it’s safe to say that people who vacation in other cities have the disposable income to handle it. A dime a bag, people.

2. It wouldn’t surprise me if most of the visitors Joseph is fretting about are supportive of the bag fee, assuming they even notice it. Most people like the idea of being environmentally responsible. I suppose there may eventually be some kind of culture-war blowback on this sort of thing (assuming there isn’t one already; I haven’t the fortitude to look), but let’s be honest, the kind of person that would sign on for that kind of crusade probably isn’t visiting San Francisco anyway.

3. Joseph seems to be suggesting that people use gym bags to transport their groceries. I don’t know about you, but we have cloth bags that we use for groceries, and that’s all we transport in them. Actually, as often as not we bring a soft-sided cooler as well, to carry perishables. You can wash cloth bags, too. I can’t believe I even have to discuss this.

If this is the best argument the plastic bag industry has to offer, they’re in sad shape.

Seattle bans plastic bags

Spotted this while we were in Portland.

Those ubiquitous, single-use plastic bags will no longer be available at checkout counters at grocery and retail stores across Seattle starting Sunday.

The ban intended to cut down on pollution requires grocers and other retailers to stop handing out plastic bags and charge customers a nickel fee for every paper bag as a way encourage people to bring their own bags.

Stores have posted signs telling customers of the upcoming changes. The city has mailed out thousands of notices to local retailers, as well as calling and visiting them in-person. One group at the University of Washington even held an exchange to encourage people to bring their extra reusable bags, or come get one.

“I think the stores will be ready, I don’t know if the customers are ready. It’s just a matter of getting used to something new,” said Joe Gilliam, president of the Northwest Grocery Association, which represents the largest grocery chains in Seattle.

Customers who are unaware will show up wondering why they can’t get a plastic bag, he said. “There will be an adjustment.”


Plastic bags have been blamed for littering streets, fouling oceans and harming marine life. Each year Seattleites carry off about 292 million single-use plastic bags, and 68 million paper bags. About 82 percent of paper bags are recycled, while only 13 percent [of plastic bags] are recycled.

The city council unanimously approved the plastic bag ban last December, joining other cities across the country. Nearby communities such as Bainbridge Island, Mukilteo, Edmonds, Bellingham and Portland, Ore., also have banned plastic bags.

Here’s comprehensive information about the new ordinance. Just another data point to consider as Houston contemplates what to do about its plastic bag situation.

Tyson Sowell: The Problem of Single-Use Bags

The following is from a series of guest posts that I will be presenting over the next few weeks.

On Wednesday, June 20, Houston City Council approved a budget amendment to

“address littering by plastic bags or phasing out plastic bags city-wide. This proposal will be taken to the appropriate committee for proper vetting, consideration and input from businesses, residents and environmental advocates.”

Tyson Sowell

Texas Campaign for the Environment supports the phasing out of single-use bags and advocates for reusable bags. Brownsville was the first city in Texas to address the pollution impacts of single-use bags. After a year of study, the City of Brownsville decided to limit both paper and plastic bags, even though they were home to a major paper bag manufacturer. Soon after, South Padre Island and Fort Stockton, in West Texas, passed local ordinances limiting single-use bags and, most recently, (after an extensive study) Austin too found limiting single-use bags makes economic and environmental sense.

Plastic pollution in the US has increased by 165% since 1969 making plastic pollution the third most abundant pollution type. It is estimated that Houstonians consume 1.9 million plastic bags per day or more than 693 million plastic bags per year.

So, why not just recycle them?

Nationwide recycling rates for single-use bags are very poor – 60% to 90% of paper bags and 95% of plastic bags are NOT recycled. Additionally, voluntary recycling programs for plastic bags have been unsuccessful in keeping them out of landfills, waterways, trees, and storm drains. For example, Austin’s plastic bag recycling pilot program, at its best after distributing 900,000 reusable bags, was only able to achieve a 27% recycling rate. If the City of Houston followed this route, assuming they could achieve this same level of success, 1.4 million bags per day, would still be free to roam our streets and swim in our waterways.

As Houston grows, its waste problem grows with it and phasing out single-use bags is a step in the right direction to reduce our waste and keep our city beautiful. Buffalo Bayou is heavily polluted with plastic waste and continuing to ignore this problem will not make it go away but will make it worse. Even though paper bags biodegrade, they use more energy to manufacture and transport and are not any better for the environment overall.

Houston is the only city of the ten largest cities in Texas that does not provide curbside recycling for all of its residents. The recent budget crunch has been blamed time and time again for the City’s inability to expand this service. Phasing out plastic bags would save the City about $2 million per year which could be used to expand recycling and get Houston on the path to a green, clean future.

It’s time for Houston to get serious about its growing waste future. It’s time to bag the bags.

Tyson Sowell is the Houston Program Director for Texas Campaign for the Environment – a statewide, grassroots, environmental policy advocacy organization. You can learn more at, at and follow on twitter at

Council defers on strip club fee

Tagged for a week.

Consideration of a $5-per-head fee on customers of strip clubs to pay for reducing the city’s backlog of untested rape kits has been delayed for a week.

Council members Melissa Noriega and Al Hoang both tagged the item, a parliamentary maneuver that puts off an agenda item for one week, no questions asked.

Neither Noriega nor Hoang said they were against the plan but wanted more time to consider the measure, which was introduced a week ago by Councilwoman Ellen Cohen.

I suspect this will go through in the end. The clubs themselves are unsurprisingly not happy at the prospect, but their main argument against is unlikely to strike fear in anyone’s heart.

Al Van Huff, lawyer for several Houston-area strip clubs, said the city can expect a court fight.

“It sounds great if you’re a politician,” Van Huff said. “The reality of the situation is, it’s going to be expensive for the city to attempt to impose such a tax on these businesses.”

Enforcing a city ordinance also could be complicated. Cohen estimated that about 30 clubs would be affected. Van Huff said fewer than a handful of clubs fit the city’s definition of a sexually oriented business, while an additional 50 clubs’ entertainers wear just enough clothing to skirt the classification.

The fee unfairly targets clubs with the intent of making them unprofitable and forcing their closure, Van Huff said. The clubs already are responsible for taxes as well as the state fee, he said.

The State Supreme Court upheld the legality of the state fee, and the US Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal of that ruling. That case isn’t the be-all and end-all, it was strictly about the constitutional free speech issue, so the clubs may find a more promising avenue for litigation, but again the historical record is against them, as their suit against the 1997 SOB law ultimately went nowhere. Whether or not you approve of the idea, I don’t see litigation as a big threat to it.

Meanwhile, another budget item moves forward.

City Council‘s Ethics, Elections and Council Governance Committee will consider a charter amendment ballot proposition to change term limits from six to 12 years.

Councilman Andrew Burks proposed doubling Council terms from two to four years and keeping the three-term limit in place. Houston voters would have to approve a ballot measure to change current term limits, which are more than two decades old.

The committee would review ballot language, which Burks says will save the city $3 million each two years by reducing the number of elections for the mayor, 16 Council members and controller. Councilwoman Wanda Adams is a co-sponsor of the Burks proposal, which was submitted last week as a budget amendment.

The full Council would have to act by Aug. 20 to place language on the November ballot.

Burks said two-year terms are so short that “We really can’t get anything done” because Council members need to campaign for re-election. Extending terms “improves upon the ability of Council members and mayor to do a better job,” he said.

Councilwoman Helena Brown and Oliver Pennington voted against sending the matter to a Council committee.

“Four years is too long a time for change-out if we’re not doing our job right,” Brown said.

My thoughts exactly, Helena. If this gets approved, it will be yet another referendum on the fall ballot. Get ready to do a lot of voting, y’all.

And finally, there was the plastic bag issue.

Council has approved a budget amendment ordering city officials to consider doing something about the litter problems presented by plastic bags or even to phase them out.

Councilman Ed Gonzalez’s original amendment called for preparing an ordinance within a year that would address a bag ban. Gonzalez spoke of looking to Austin, where a plastic bag ban is in effect, as a possible model.

Numerous speakers criticized the proposal at Tuesday’s public session. The amendment was watered down Tuesday night to say the city should only ”address phasing out plastic bags” and deleted mention of an ordinance. At the Council table today, Councilman Oliver Pennington further softened the proposal by adding language calling on the city to “address littering by plastic bags or phasing out plastic bags.”

Not really sure what that amounts to, but we’ll see. I’m still perfectly fine with the idea of charging a fee for plastic bags and using that money to clean up trash around the city.

UPDATE: In the end, the budget was approved, along with a few other amendments.

Budget amendment time

Now that Mayor Parker has formally submitted her proposed budget for fiscal year 2013, it’s time for Council members to submit their amendments for consideration. I’m going to start at the bottom of the story with the two proposals that intrigues me the most.

Two members called for a November election to amend the city’s term limits law, which forces council members, the mayor and controller from office after three two-year terms. [CM Wanda] Adams proposes two four-year terms; Councilman Andrew Burks proposes three four-year terms.

Councilman Ed Gonzalez has proposed a ban on plastic bags in Houston. Specifically, his amendment calls for the city to draw up an ordinance within a year that would phase out the use of the bags. Brownsville has banned the bags, and a ban goes into effect in Austin next year.

“We have a number of bayous, and they’re littered with plastic bottles and plastic bags,” which conservation groups spend hundreds of thousands of dollars a year removing, Gonzalez said. He referred to trees on the banks of bayous with bags snagged in their boughs as “urban Christmas trees.” He said he does not envision the city offering businesses a financial incentive to abandon plastic bags.

As you know, I don’t like term limits at all, but if we have to have them I’d rather put the limit at 12 years rather than 6, for the simple reason that I don’t think six years is enough time to really accomplish much as a Council member. As such, I’d take Burks’ proposal over Adams’, though hers is still better than the status quo. However, I would prefer even more to have six two-year terms instead of three four-year terms. My argument for having two year terms instead of four year terms can be summed up in four words: Council Member Helena Brown. Four years is an awful long time to have to wait to correct an error like that.

As for the bag ban proposal, you know I’ve been following developments around the state and wondering when Houston might get in on the act. About time for it, I say. I don’t have a strong preference for any specific approach to this, whether a ban by fiat or by imposition of a tax on bags, perhaps to be replaced later by a full on ban. As long as the city engages all the stakeholders and gives plenty of opportunity for feedback, I’m sure the end result will be fine. All of these proposals assume Mayor Parker supports them, as they are unlikely to get very far if she doesn’t. We know she’s no fan of the current term limits system, and I’ll be very surprised if she doesn’t back up her Mayor Pro Tem on this one.

Council members Stephen Costello and Wanda Adams both call for giving $160,000 to the Houston Food Bank to help it enroll more people in SNAP, the federal program formerly known as food stamps.

One of Councilman Mike Sullivan’s amendments would eliminate funding for affirmative action monitoring on city contracts. Councilman Larry Green proposes increasing it.

From Councilman Jack Christie came a fill-it-or-kill-it plan that would have Council consider eliminating any position that remains vacant for three months.

First-term Councilwoman Ellen Cohen proposed a Houston version of the so-called “pole tax” she shepherded into law as a state legislator. The state law imposed a $5 per customer fee on strip clubs to raise money for sexual assault victims.

In order:

– I approve of the Costello/Adams proposal. Ensuring children have adequate nutrition is one of the best investments you can make. It is, to coin a phrase, a big effin’ deal.

– Sullivan may have won his Republican primary last month, but between this and some of his other amendments, which include a five percent pay cut for the Mayor and Council members, I guess he isn’t finished wooing those voters. I don’t expect them to go far, and as Campos notes, his colleagues who hope to be on Council longer than Sullivan intends to be probably aren’t too thrilled by this.

– I see some merit in Christie’s proposal, but on the whole I’d prefer to err on the side of more flexibility for department heads.

– I’m a tiny bit ambivalent about Cohen’s SOB proposal. No question, clearing the rape kit backlog is a huge priority, and with the favorable resolution of the lawsuit over the state “pole tax” law (that Cohen authored), this is the obvious vehicle for that. I just feel, as I did about the state law, that sexual assault is everyone’s problem and everyone’s responsibility, and as such it feels a little pat to put the entire burden for funding these needed items on strip clubs and the like. It’s a minor quibble, not enough to make me oppose Cohen’s amendment, I just felt like someone had to say that.

There’s more proposals than just these, of varying levels of seriousness and likelihood of adoption. In addition to her pension default tomfoolery, CM Helena Brown has a variety of no-hope amendments, including one to switch the city from a strong mayor system to a city manager system. There are pros and cons to each approach, and without commenting on the merits of one system over the other, I’ll just note that this would be a ginormous, fundamental change to how we do things, and as such would need a ton of discussion and engagement culminating in a charter referendum. All things considered, it’s hard to see this as anything but another attack on the Mayor by her political enemies. Stace has more.

Austin bans bags

They go farther than other cities have gone.

At 2 a.m. [Friday], the Austin City Council passed one of the broadest bag laws in the nation, agreeing to ban disposable paper and plastic bags at all retail checkout counters starting in March 2013.

Before and after the ban takes effect, the city plans to do a $2 million education campaign to make customers aware of the change and remind them to bring reusable bags.

The council decided not to enact a fee on disposable bags before the ban takes effect. A fee had been discussed as a way to help shoppers and retailers prepare for the ban.

Austin is the first big Texas city to pass a bag ban. More than two dozen U.S. cities have bag laws, most of them prohibiting plastic bags and imposing a fee on paper.

In Austin, retailers will be able to offer only reusable bags, defined as those made of cloth, durable materials or thicker paper and plastic bags that have handles.

Exempt will be single-use bags used for bulk foods, meat, fish and produce, newspaper delivery, dry cleaning and restaurant carry-out foods. Also exempt will be the bags that charities and nonprofits use to distribute food and other items.

Here was a preview story from Monday. I’m not thrilled with the paper bag ban. Paper bags aren’t nearly the litter problem that plastic bags are, and besides, who doesn’t use paper bags to store their other paper for curbside recycling pickup? I’m all in for doing something about plastic bags, but I would have voted against a paper bag ban if I’d been on Austin City Council. And I must admit, the more I think about it, the more I find myself in agreement with the approach of taxing instead of banning the plastic bags.

A tax by itself will dramatically reduce the use of plastic bags, judging from the experience of other cities. A tax will also generate money we can use to clean up other litter — plastic bags aren’t the only things littering our creek beds and parks. The city could divert the $4 million it intends to spend on educating consumers about the ban to cleaning up litter. The City could put a lot of people to work and clean up a lot of litter with $4 million and the tax income stream. If you’re really interested in a cleaner city, a tax will get you that.

I don’t oppose plastic bag bans, especially in coastal cities, but the argument about using the revenue generated from a bag tax specifically for litter cleanup is compelling. When the city of Houston finally gets around to talking about this – we will talk about this sooner or later, right? – that’s the approach I’d like to see given priority.

Corpus Christi discusses plastic bags

Add another city to the list of those seeking to reduce plastic bag usage and litter.

Skip the Plastic

[Corpus Christi] Mayor Joe Adame wants the community to work together on a solution within the next two to three months.

“The easy decision is to ban plastic bags,” he said. “We have got to figure out a unique way to change people’s behavior in the community.”

Some City Council members supported the idea of a plastic bag fee, while others said it’s not the government’s place to tell businesses what to do.

There was some consensus among the council, including an idea for public anti-litter campaign to put more teeth behind the city’s litter ordinance, and ramping up litter enforcement. Some council members said it might be effective to embarrass those caught littering by putting their faces in the newspaper or on TV.


Many who spoke during public comment supported the Coastal Bend Surfrider Foundation proposal for a city ordinance to assess a plastic shopping bag fee. The fee would encourage retail customers to bring their owns bags or pay $1 per transaction to use plastic bags.

Most of the money collected would pay for litter cleanups, education and more code enforcement officers. Some would go to retail stores to cover administrative costs.

The discussion about a plastic bag ban, which for the past two years remained at city committee level, recently gained momentum after the local Surfriders chapter took up a national initiative called Skip the Plastic. The initiative encourages people to bring reusable bags for shopping.

Here’s Skip the Plastic. Take a look at this picture for an idea of the scope of the issue. Of the ideas that various cities have come up with to deal with this issue, I like charging a fee for plastic bag usage the most. The $1 per transaction fee proposed for Corpus is higher than what I’ve seen elsewhere – a fee of five or ten cents per bag – but that’s OK. If nothing else, it would give some data about how elastic the demand for plastic bags is. If and when it takes action, Corpus Christi would join Austin, Midland, Pecos, Brownsville, South Padre Island, Fort Stockton, and possibly others by now – Eating Our Words mentions San Antonio and McAllen as possibilities. Sooner or later, I hope Houston will be on that list as well.

Austin may accelerate its bag ban schedule

They’re considering their options.

The City of Austin might ban the thin plastic and paper bags offered at checkout counters beginning in March 2013 a year earlier than expected and scrap plans to require retailers to charge a fee for such bags in the meantime.

Austin Resource Recovery , the city’s trash and recycling department, has written several drafts of the ban, most recently proposing that retailers charge a fee of 10 cents per single-use bag or $1 per transaction starting in March 2013 before the ban took effect in March 2014 .

But on Thursday, Austin Resource Recovery Director Bob Gedert told the City Council that he now thinks skipping the interim fee and enacting the ban sooner would simplify things and prevent disputes between customers and cashiers over how many free, disposable bags the customer needs.

The council is slated to hold a public hearing and vote on the ban March 1. After hearing Gedert’s presentation Thursday, a few council members questioned whether the ban should apply to paper bags as well as plastic.

Under the proposed ban, retailers could offer only reusable bags, defined as those made of cloth or durable materials, or thicker paper and plastic bags that have handles.

The city of Pecos recently gave preliminary approval to a ban of its own, while the city of Midland will discuss the idea in March. Other cities – Brownsville, South Padre Island, Fort Stockton – have adopted similar bans, with varying approaches that include charging fees for single use bags, requring plastic bags to be compostable, and so forth. I don’t know that there’s a single right answer, and it may well be that some combination of requirements will work best. There’s a lot of experimentation going on, so hopefully we’ll learn more. And hopefully the city of Houston will eventually get on this bandwagon. There’s a lot of good we could do by pursuing this.