By Chris Lisinski, State House News Service
BOSTON (State House News Service) — The Massachusetts Senate approved a statewide ban on retail businesses offering single-use plastic bags, but the bill advanced Wednesday night with more dissent than usual from the Democratic ranks due to the way the bill surfaced.
Retail businesses would be prohibited from offering customers thin, disposable plastic bags at the point of sale in most cases, and unlike versions of the bill the Senate backed in previous sessions, they would also need to charge a minimum of 10 cents for any paper or reusable bags offered to customers.
The Senate voted 36-4 to approve the bill, which has failed to gain traction over the years in the House.
"Every day, millions of Massachusetts residents are using plastic bags as part of their daily routine," said Sen. Jamie Eldridge, the lead sponsor of the ban. "Whether we're buying groceries, stopping by the pharmacy or going to the hardware store, too often, we're bringing these consumer goods home in plastic bags. Despite our best intentions, well over 90 percent of these plastic bags are being thrown away never to be used again."
The Senate shot down an amendment from Environment Committee Chair Sen. Anne Gobi that would have replaced the text of the legislation (S 2410) with language mirroring a version of the bill the committee advanced that did not include the mandatory 10-cent fee.
That committee-endorsed bill (H 3945) is pending before the House Ways and Means Committee.
Senate President Karen Spilka abruptly announced plans to advance the new bill at the start of the week. In a Monday press release, she said she was inspired to act after viewing a display at the Vancouver Aquarium over the summer about the impacts of plastic on marine life.
The Ways and Means Committee then generated the legislation by reporting it off an unrelated land-use bill (S 459) to the ire of the House's Environment Committee chair. Gobi echoed similar criticisms during Wednesday's debate.
"I also share frustrations when bills don't come out of a committee right away or sit in one chamber or the other, but there is a process, and those processes should not be circumvented," Gobi said.
Sen. Marc Pacheco, who supported the underlying legislation, said he believes the Senate "can have a problem in actually getting the bill done" because it went around the Environment Committee.
Gobi's amendment was rejected 26-13, a narrower margin than most votes in a chamber where Democrats hold 34 seats. She ultimately voted against the bill itself as well, while Republican Sens. Bruce Tarr and Patrick O'Connor backed the ban.
Environmental advocacy groups previously criticized lawmakers for advancing a ban without a fee, arguing that a charge on consumers was necessary to ensure the ban is effective. Under the bill, 5 cents out of every bag purchase will be returned to communities to go toward recycling and other local efforts.
Qualifying small businesses would be exempt from charging the fee until 2024 under a Tarr amendment the Senate adopted.
Senate Ways and Means Committee Chair Michael Rodrigues said during Wednesday's session that the new bill had consensus support from environmental groups and from several business interests, including the Massachusetts Food Association, which represents grocery stores and supermarkets.
"There were lots of negotiations with groups on all sides of this plastic bag ban, from the retailers to the food association to all of the environmental agencies," he said. "The arrangement that is made with this 10-cent fee is the result of these negotiations."
The National Federation of Independent Business Massachusetts slammed the Senate's approval, tweeting just after the vote that the fee is "one more policy making MA less affordable own & operate a #smallbiz."
The Senate's vote came after 10 p.m. Wednesday in the final formal session of the year, where lawmakers also wrapped up several high-profile bills including a major education funding overhaul.