Bill would block local action on plastic bags

Sen. James Leewright

NORMAN — Any city council members with local policy plans regarding plastic bags may not even get the chance to have them heard.

A bill drafted by State Sen. James Leewright, R-Bristow, will pre-empt any municipal government’s decision in Oklahoma to restrict, prohibit, tax or issue any ordinance regulating “auxiliary containers,” including plastic bags. It passed out of the Senate General Government Committee and is now lined up for a vote this session.

Norman city leaders have explored the possibility of a fee system for the use of plastic bags within city limits, though no formal discussions have occurred. Ward 4 council member Bill Hickman and Ward 6 council member Breea Clark said in a previous Transcript story that they would be in favor of action to try and limit the amount of plastic bag litter in Norman.

Leewright has not returned multiple calls to his office for comment. Clark said she hasn’t heard from the senator either, despite efforts to speak to him about the bill.

Clark said she learned some of Leewright’s reasoning behind the bill from media outlet eCapitol.

“This is clearly a local issue,” Clark said. “His argument is that if there are different regulations throughout the state, it could discourage business. That’s ridiculous, because we already have different sales tax rates in cities.”

Clark also said Leewright has put blame on special interest groups for pushing these types of environmental agendas on cities. That has not been the case in Norman, she said.

Senate Bill 1465 essentially restricts cities from doing anything about containers like plastic bags or cups, styrofoam cups or boxes, cardboard and aluminum beyond recycling programs. It states that “no political subdivision shall restrict, tax, prohibit or issue any ordinance regulating the use, disposition or sale of auxiliary containers.

Clark said she sees more interest for a plastic bag fee applied by businesses in Norman, part of which would go back to that business and part of which would go toward education resources about litter and the environment.

Such programs are not unheard of, and California has even banned most single-use plastic bags.

“We’re not interested in banning them, because we’ve heard a lot of feedback,” Clark said. “These are just a lot of informal discussions at this point.”

But if Leewright’s bill makes it through both the House and Senate and is signed by Gov. Mary Fallin, those discussions would become moot. Clark said it comes down to an issue of local control.

“We’re talking to residents, emailing with residents,” Clark said about the council members. “I speak to them face to face way more than state legislators. I understand there are some things that have to be done at the state level. One of them is budgeting for state services.”

Clark said she wants to know why Leewright has found time for this bill in the midst of budget negotiations and funding issues.

“If you have so much going on right now, why are you considering an issue like this?” she said.

She has reached out to Norman legislators on the issue but hasn’t heard much in the way of a response.

The bill passed 6-4 out of committee, with Democratic Sen. Kay Floyd and Sen. Anastasia Pittman voting against alongside Republicans Sen. Larry Boggs and Sen. David Holt. 

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