House Bill 242, which has only Republican sponsors and co-sponsors, applies to "auxiliary containers," which are single-use or reusable packaging designed for transporting food, beverages, or other merchandise at a restaurant, grocery store or similar place of business. Examples include plastic grocery bags, takeout food containers and paper cups.
The bill, working its way through the legislature, would prohibit local governments from imposing a tax, fee, assessment or other kind of charge on the use of auxiliary containers, the sale, use or consumption of such containers, or based on receipts for the sale of such containers.
The bill's proponents, including its chief sponsors, Reps. George F. Lang of West Chester and Don Jones of Freeport, say it is necessary to establish a uniform, statewide rule to prevent burdening businesses. Several local governments have already approved plastic bag bans, including Bexley, Bowling Green and Cuyahoga County.
"When everyday products like paper cups, grocery bags, to-go containers and soft-drink bottles are taxed and regulated inconsistently within a state, it creates costly problems for manufacturers, businesses and working families," Jones said last month before the House State and Local Government Committee.
"Adopting statewide uniformity for auxiliary containers is a way to protect against over-regulation, support manufacturing jobs and uphold consumer freedom," he said.
Several pro-business groups have expressed support for the bill, including the Ohio Chamber of Commerce, NFIB Ohio, the Ohio Manufacturers' Association, the Ohio Council of Retail Merchants and the Ohio Beverage Association.
Opponents of the measure have expressed concern about the potential environmental impact of the bill. Ben Kessler, mayor of Bexley, which instituted its own plastic-bag ban in late May, said there is room for partnering with businesses on bag bans to address both environmental and business concerns.
"In our city, we worked closely with the largest distributors of single-use plastic bags, and came up with a joint solution that was agreeable to our business partners, and will meaningfully improve the urban tumbleweed of plastic bags and the resultant negative impact to our waterways, wildlife, food stream and human health," Kessler said Wednesday before the State and Local Government Committee.
Kessler said Bexley's ordinance and others like it can serve as a "valuable testing ground" for addressing such environmental issues.
The bill's opponents also seize on the fact that it would overrule the local governments, and by extension, the people living under those governments, on an issue they have already decided on.
In that sense, the bill presents a potential constitutional question. Under the Ohio Constitution, local governments retain powers that include the power of local self-governance and "the power to adopt and enforce local police, sanitary, and other similar regulations that are not in conflict with general laws." These are often referred to as "home rule" powers.
According to an analysis of House Bill 242 by the Ohio Legislative Service Commission, a nonpartisan agency that advises the General Assembly, it is unclear whether the Ohio Constitution permits the legislature to limit "fees and other charges" imposed by local governments. The Ohio Constitution does allow the General Assembly to limit local governments' taxing power, but that may be different from the power to impose fees and bans.
Kent Scarrett, the executive director of the Ohio Municipal League, a nonprofit that advocates for Ohio local governments, pointed to a discrepancy between this bill and the conservative beliefs of its sponsors, co-sponsors and supporters.
"Generally, those with a conservative ideology think that government that is closer to the people is preferable," he said. "But what we've seen under this Republican leadership is a significant uptick in preemptions of home rule and the ability of local governments to make decisions for themselves."
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