Republican legislators in Harrisburg on Thursday added a last-minute amendment to the state budget package that could delay and potentially derail a proposal to ban Philadelphia stores from using plastic bags, a maneuver one City Council member called an unfair power grab.
The provision would prohibit the state and local governments from passing new regulations on plastic bags for one year, while directing two state offices to study the economic and environmental impact of regulating plastic bags.
Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman (R., Centre) said he pushed for the provision because his district includes players on both sides of the issue: a plastics manufacturer, Milesburg-based Hilex Poly, and Ferguson Township, which is considering a fee on plastic bags.
“In my own district, I have a municipality that’s looking at an impact fee, and also I have a manufacturer that makes plastic bags. So you hear from both sides," Corman said. “So we thought the best thing to do to help everyone move forward was to study it.”
But by adding it as an amendment to the fiscal code, which must be approved for the state to enact its spending plan for next year, its backers essentially ensured its passage. Gov. Tom Wolf cannot veto the plastics language without rejecting the entire code, which would derail a $34 billion budget deal the Democrat spent weeks negotiating with the Republican-controlled legislature.
J.J. Abbott, Wolf’s spokesperson, would say only that Wolf was expected to “take action on a variety of budget bills tonight."
“We will look at everything,” said Abbott.
It also puts on hold plans for such a ban in Philadelphia. City Councilman Mark Squilla, who introduced the bill this month to ban plastic bags in the city and impose a 15-cent fee on single-use paper bags, called the maneuver an unfair power grab by state officials over a local issue.
“Honestly, I think it’s a disgrace to be able to have the ability to go in there and usurp local municipalities for what they believe would benefit their local interests,” Squilla said. “It’s a slippery slope of total control over the local.”
City Council members have tried to pass bag bans in the past, including Squilla and his predecessor, Frank DiCicco. Conversely, state lawmakers have tried and failed to prohibit local governments from banning single-use plastic bags, including an attempt in 2017 by former State Rep. Mike Hanna (D., Clinton).
Corman said he wanted the state to study the impact because any bag ban or tax outside of Philadelphia is likely to prompt a lawsuit over the legality of the ordinance. State law, however, gives Philly greater latitude to pass local taxes.
“It’s going to end up in court one way or the other, and I thought, let’s do a pause and do a study,” he said.
Rep. Elizabeth Fiedler (D., Phila.) sits on the budget-writing Appropriations Committee and opposed the amendment.
“We have local elected officials who are quite capable of aiming these decisions about trash,” Fiedler said. “They should have the power to make these decisions that affect people’s health and also our environment.”