Hawaii Lawmakers Argue Over Checkout-Bag Fee

Civil Beat - April 27, 2011
By: 
Michael Levine

The legislative session is nearly pau, but negotiations on the checkout-bag fee are seemingly just getting started.Meeting in conference to discuss Senate Bill 1363 for the first time Wednesday, Senate Environment Committee Chair Mike Gabbard and House Environmental Protection Committee Chair Denny Coffman traded numbers and agreed to talk again Thursday after huddling with colleagues to discuss finances. If passed, the measure would be the nation's first statewide single-use checkout-bag fee.The Senate originally proposed a 25-cent fee for each single-use checkout bag provided to a customer, and the draft CD1 Gabbard offered Wednesday suggested 20 cents per bag. But Coffman — who actually knocked the fee down to a nickel in his committee before House Finance pumped it back up to a dime — shot back that 10 cents is the House position."That's why we'd be willing to bite the bullet at 15," Gabbard said, smiling as others assembled in Room 225 chuckled. One person blurted out that 12-and-a-half cents per bag might be preferable.The 20-cent fee was just one of nearly a dozen noteworthy changes that Gabbard made to the version that passed the House two weeks ago.Another key adjustment was giving retailers 10 percent of fee revenues after the first year. The Senate had originally suggested a permanent 20-percent cut for retailers, while the House-approved version would have ended the 20-percent share after one year and given zero thereafter.Gabbard's version, if approved, would also remove the preemption clause passed by the House that would have allowed Kauai's and Maui's plastic bag bans to stand but would have prevented Honolulu and Hawaii Counties from passing their own bans after the fee takes effect. Under Gabbard's bill, all counties will be allowed to enact bans.Lauren Zirbel, a lobbyist for the Hawaii Food Industry Association that represents food retailers, wholesalers and manufacturers, told Civil Beat that her trade organization still supports Gabbard's proposed version despite some concerns because the fee would discourage the use of costly single-use bags."Retailers still see it as an important change that needs to happen, so hopefully it will pass," she said.Coffman said Tuesday that the preemption clause wasn't a sticking point for him, but reiterated Wednesday that the size of the fee is a potential deal-breaker.He has repeatedly said that he understands the environmental value of the bill and that he's merely representing concerns voiced by House colleagues.Some proponents have begun to wonder why lawmakers are slow to enact a bill that's had widespread support."It's a little strange to me because the issue has gotten such broad support and we've got this big coalition of environmentalists and big business," said Stuart Coleman, Hawaii coordinator of the Surfrider Foundation. "I don't understand why they would not support it because they obviously need the money and it's a win-win situation both economically and environmentally."When 98.6 percent of testimony received on this bill is positive and supportive and only the American Chemistry Council and a couple of other individuals are opposed, I find it hard to believe that the legislators are not being influenced by the American Chemistry Council," he said. "After all, it's one of the biggest lobbying groups in the country."The American Chemistry Council was the first to provide testimony [pdf] on the bill. A letter from a California-based representative was submitted on Feb. 3. Similar testimonies were submitted on March 21 [pdf] and April 5 [pdf].The American Chemistry Council describes itself as "the major trade association representing the U.S. chemical and plastics industry," and is likely wary of a proposal that would give Hawaii the first statewide checkout bag fee.It's represented locally by well-known Hawaii lobbyists Red Morris and John Radcliffe. A message left at Capitol Consultants of Hawaii Wednesday evening was not immediately returned.Asked if the American Chemistry Council had any influence on Hawaii lawmakers opposing the bill, Coffman told Civil Beat no."Not one iota," he said.The conference committee will reconvene Thursday at 3:30 p.m. in Room 225.