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Paxton sues Brownsville over bag fee

Of course he does.

plastic-bag

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.

An awful lot of people tried to sign up for insurance exchanges on Tuesday

That’s a very good thing, even if technical difficulties prevented many of them from completing the job.

It's constitutional - deal with it

It’s constitutional – deal with it

On the first day of sign-ups for President Barack Obama’s health care reform, a wave of consumers across the nation, including many Texans, sought Tuesday to enroll in online health care marketplaces, but glitches with the federal website prevented them from obtaining information about coverage plans and rates.

“I wanted to get in and see what my options are to get signed up,” said Suezen Salinas, 31, who sought help at Legacy Community Health Services in Houston. “Apparently, there are a few glitches in the system, so it’s not letting us get past a certain place to be able to set up my profile and begin.” Salinas described herself as “disappointed, but I’m still excited.”

By midafternoon the Obama administration sought to quell the complaints from across the country.

Marilyn Tavenner, administrator of the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, contended problems were resolved and that consumers were, in fact, able to enroll. But during a telephone conference with reporters she refused to disclose a number, saying “we decided not to release that yet.”

Tavenner said 2.8 million people visited the federal healthcare.gov website since it opened Tuesday morning, but that it was unclear how many of those were repeat users.

“This is day one of a six-month process,” Tavenner noted, adding that people have until March 31 to enroll for insurance. Those who enroll by Dec. 15 will begin coverage on Jan. 1.

As the story notes, five times more than have ever been on the Medicare.gov website at one time were on healthcare.gov trying to use the exchanges. That’s truly incredible, and speaks very loudly to the deep, abiding need for this service. Just imagine for a minute how many more people could be getting coverage right now if the Republican Party hadn’t been engaged in a four year jihad to sabotage and undermine it at every step.

The Trib has a report that was updated a couple of times during the day that reported on some of the experiences folks had in Texas. This bit from their most recent update was really annoying to read.

The Brownsville Community Health Center had 50 people show up on Tuesday ready to sign up for health coverage — many even brought pay stubs and income documentation — but not a single one of them had an email address.

“If you don’t include an email address, they won’t let you through,” said Christela Gomez, the special projects coordinator and lead certification application counselor at the center. Although the center considered helping people sign up for an email account, Gomez said many weren’t comfortable with the idea because they did not have a computer to access the email address later. “Quite a few didn’t even know what an email address was,” she added.

The center’s certified application counselors helped the patients fill out paper applications, but they’ll have to wait for a written response from the federal government to find out whether additional documentation is needed or whether those applicants qualify for tax credits.

Some of the questions on the paper application were difficult for patients to answer, said Gomez. One man who came in to receive assistance finding health coverage currently works as a truck driver, she said. He earns 30 cents per mile, and his income can range from $50 to $100 a week.

“We didn’t really know how to fill in the income part with him,” she said, adding, “We kind of just wrote it in on the side, his situation.”

Paula Gomez, the executive director of the center, said her patients are mostly adults who are too young to qualify for Medicare. Although most of her patients have jobs, pay taxes and want to cooperate with the health care system, there are extenuating circumstances like language barriers that make it difficult.

“I’m sure there are pockets like ours all over the country,” Gomez said. She added that the federal government should be more flexible and consider the different situations people are facing across the country. “They think in terms of everything that’s going on in Washington, D.C., but they don’t look at the reality of the rest of the world in the United States,” she said.

You know what might have addressed that problem? If the state of Texas had created its own exchange, since the whole idea behind state-based exchanges was that local folks would know their interests and their population better than a bunch of distant bureaucrats in DC. If we lived in a state whose leaders cared about its people, that’s what we would have gotten. Instead, we’re stuck with the likes of Rick Perry, David Dewhurst, Greg Abbott, and the like, and this is the result. The fact that we’re using the federal exchanges here in Texas doesn’t mean that people won’t get signed up, and it doesn’t mean that they won’t be able to buy quality plans. But the experience could have been better, and it could have been more Texas-oriented, if Perry et al gave a damn. I understand politics, and I get doing what you can to screw your enemies. I don’t get screwing your own people.

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.

Austin to propose ban on plastic bags

Good for them.

The City Council will vote Aug. 4 on a resolution from [Mayor Lee] Leffingwell and Council Members Mike Martinez and Chris Riley that would direct staff members to propose a scope for the ban and a timetable for phasing it in. Staff members would have to present a plan to the council in November.

City staffers will work with retailers and other stakeholders to write that plan, the mayor said.

Details such as whether small retailers should be exempt, what penalties retailers could face for not complying and when the ban should take effect will be worked out over the next four months, he said.

“I’m sure many retailers have a lot of plastic bags on hand or (long-term) contracts with bag companies. We want to take those things into consideration,” Leffingwell said. “Our goal will be to develop a reasonable ordinance that doesn’t cause hardship. It would be a hardship to enact a ban immediately.”

Leffingwell said he thinks paper bags should still be an option at checkout counters because they’re included in Austin’s curbside collection program for recyclables and they don’t gum up recycling machinery as plastic bags do.

But he said retailers may want or need to charge a fee of a few cents per paper bag to compel customers to get in the habit of bringing canvas or reusable bags.

The mayor said he would prefer that compostable plastic bags not be allowed because they can be tough to distinguish from other plastic bags, which might make a ban difficult to enforce.

Leffingwell said he expects there will be exceptions to the ban, such as allowing grocery stores to put fish and meat products in plastic bags at checkout counters.

Only a handful of other U.S. cities have enacted bans on plastic bags, including Brownsville, San Francisco and Portland, Ore., which passed a ban last week.

Besides Brownsville, South Padre Island has banned plastic bags, while Fort Stockton has a ban that will take effect in September. The Lege had a couple of bills proposed that would have preempted these local ordinances, but neither got a vote in either chamber. Austin had tried to ban plastic bags in 2008 but settled instead for a voluntary program that aimed at reducing their usage by 50%; Leffingwell says that only a 20% reduction was achieved. I’ll be interested to see what they come up with. I hope it succeeds and becomes a model for other Texas cities to follow. More from Mayor Leffingwell is on BOR.

Can we take a step forward without also taking one back?

From last week’s Texas Tribune on the subject of plastic bag recycling.

On Tuesday the Senate’s Committee on Natural Resources heard testimony on a bill sponsored by the committee’s chairman, state Sen. Troy Fraser, R-Horseshoe Bay, that would require large retailers like Wal-Mart to have well-labeled bag recycling canisters in their stores. This afternoon the House’s Environmental Regulations committee heard testimony on a similar bill, sponsored by Rep. Kelly Hancock, R-Fort Worth.

“It encourages more eco-friendly behaviors,” said Hancock, who said that plastic bags cannot be recycled at curbside. It was a “free market-based solution,” he emphasized, that would result in more bags being recycled and made into items like benches or flower pots.

Environmental groups, however, oppose the bills because a clause at the end of both would “preempt” local rules that are in conflict with the bill. They fear this would prevent cities from banning the bags outright. Already, Brownsville has instituted a plastic bag ban, which took effect in January, and two other locations — Fort Stockton and South Padre Island — have approved bag bans that will come into effect in the coming months.

“We shouldn’t tie the hands of local communities trying to reduce solid waste,” said Luke Metzger, director of Environment Texas, in an email. Metzger did not testify but opposes the bill.

Fraser said that the bill aimed to bring a “transition” period for plastic bags. “We’ve got plastic bags in the system and we’re moving toward trying to eliminate them,” he said.

But Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, noted that there was “nothing in this bill that eliminates plastic bags in the waste stream,” and he feared that cities wanting to ban bags would be preempted from doing so under the bill’s language. Fraser said the three cities with bag bans would not be preempted, but it appeared that other cities that moved to ban bags in the future would be preempted.

Large retail groups like Wal-Mart and the Texas Restaurant Association back the bill, and several bag manufacturers also testified in favor.

I’ve noted the Brownsville and South Padre bag-banning efforts; Fort Stockton was news to me. Fraser’s bill is SB908; it was approved by the committee and is on the intent calendar for tomorrow. Hancock’s bill is HB1913; it’s still in committee. While there are times when it makes sense for the state to establish a single standard for something and in doing so override what cities have done, this isn’t one of those times. I’m confident that this provision is in there to get support from those large business interests. I’d prefer the Lege take no action at this time than take a step to prevent other cities from following Brownsville or South Padre or Fort Stockton’s example. Let’s let there be some experimentation to see what works best, and let’s leave some flexibility in place for the future rather than impose a one-size-fits-all solution. We should have bag recycling dropoffs at these locations, but we should be allowed to have more than that if we want it as well.

No more plastic bags in Brownsville

It will be very interesting to see how this plays out.

The eyes of retail will be on Brownsville this week as the city forges ahead as the first in Texas to ban single-use plastic bags.

The ordinance against the so-called “urban tumbleweeds” [started] Wednesday, and merchants from the big-box national retailers on down are on board with a mix of reusable bags for sale, ranging from cloth totes to Wal-Mart Stores’ reusable plastic bags that are supposed to withstand 50 uses.

That’s in addition to the tens of thousands already given away at community events throughout the year.

“We’ve got national support for a local cause,” said Rose Timmer, executive director of Healthy Communities of Brownsville, the nonprofit group that championed the ban.

Residents who haven’t purchased or gotten some of the freebie reusable bags from local nonprofits and other businesses will have to bring bags from home, buy reusable bags or pay a $1 surcharge at the register to have goods packed in stores’ remaining single-use bags.

[…]

Naysayers have said shoppers simply will go to neighboring communities rather than be inconvenienced, but [city Commissioner Edward] Camarillo said that’s empty talk.

“Look at the price of gasoline right now,” he said. “We don’t believe that this is going to cause them to drive out of their way to another community just because there is no plastic bag.”

I think it’s highly unlikely people will drive out of town to avoid paying a $1 surcharge. As Commissioner Camarillo noted, the extra you’d spend on gas doing so would wipe that out and then some. Plus, the grocery store business is built on convenience and proximity. I don’t see people preferring to change where they shop instead of changing their bagging habits.

There is one point of concern:

Brownsville resident Fred Garza, 21, said he anticipates “chaos.”

He said many people, himself included, use the single-use bags to line waste bins or clean up after pets, and he thinks it would be more wasteful to have to buy the bags.

I admit, I’ve used bags from the grocery store to clean up after my dog. Mostly I use the bags that the Chronicle comes in for that purpose, but that may not be an option for you in Brownsville. You can always choose to pay the surcharge if you don’t have any other means by which to deal with this.

Anyway, if this works the way its designers intend, I’ll bet you see other cities try to adopt similar plans. I won’t be surprised at all to see it on a Houston City Council agenda in another year or so. What do you think?