A Cautionary Tale for California

As I Walked The Streets of Laredo… [1]

By John D. Moore, NCRA Vice President and Legal Counsel, Henn, Etzel & Moore, Inc.

… I saw more plastic bags. That is, after a Texas appellate Court ruled recently that the City of Laredo, Texas, had no power to adopt a local ordinance banning “commercial establishments” from providing customers with single-use plastic bags. Unlike California, the Laredo ordinance did not provide for a ten cent payment to the commercial establishment. Maybe that is why the merchant groups sued. But the reasoning of the Texas court yields a cautionary tale for California.

Laredo, Texas is a home-rule city. In California this is called a “charter” city. Home rule cities are allowed extra latitude in using their police powers and may be limited by the state legislature only when the state intends to preempt local legislation with “unmistakable clarity”. A merchant group[2] sued the City to block enforcement of the bag ban. The City won judgment in its favor at the trial court. The Court of Appeal not only reversed the trial court judgment for the City, it also declared the merchants group to be the winner of the case. The appellate court remanded the case for the trial court only to award attorney fees to the merchants group.

The appellate court focused on whether the state law of solid waste disposal prevented the City from adopting a plastic bag ban. In Texas, a Texas Commission on Environmental Quality promotes regulation much like (in concept if not in practice) CalRecycle in California. The Texas state law has a very specific provision that local government may not adopt an ordinance that “prohibits or restricts” (for solid waste management purposes) the “sale or use of a container or package in a manner not authorized by state law.” There is no indication in the opinion that the state of Texas or its regulator/enforcers actually restricted the sale or use of single use plastic bags.

The appellate court found “unmistakable clarity” that the state law blocked all local ordinances concerning containers or packages. The appellate court reasoned that single use plastic bags were containers or packages with “unmistakable clarity.” This is the opposite of the trial court’s view.

The sponsor of the state law said that the local government preemption provision was intended to be limited to local laws concerning “wasteful packaging, Styrofoam cups, and bottle caps.” The appellate court did not care what the sponsor said. That is partly why legislators should say what they mean. The appellate court’s opinion is entirely based on its reading of the “plain meaning” of the preemption statute.

The Texas preemption statute forbids local regulation of the sale or use of certain materials in a mannernot authorized by state law” i.e. the use is not authorized by the state. It seems to me that if the Laredo law governed the sale or use of the single use plastic bags (used) in a manner authorized by state law, then the strict letter of the preemption statute is not applicable. Or maybe it is open to grammatical debate what was intended.[3] No Texas statute cited detailed how its citizens are to use plastic bags, except presumably not littering them.  From the opinion it seems that this argument was not made.


California’s statewide plastic bag ban being challenged by referendum presently, SB 270, also contains a preemption provision, prohibiting local governments from enacting more restrictive plastic bag laws. If SB 270 were in force, then cities, including charter cities, in CA, like Laredo, would be barred from adopting more restrictive bans. It is my experience that regulated industry groups will often trade more regulation in exchange for state preemption. I understand that this dynamic cleared the way for SB 270- plus the ten cents/bag provision that helped the grocers which the bag makers are trying to take away in Proposition 65.

[1] If you don’t know the song Streets of Laredo, check out the Johnny Cash version on YouTube. For the musically inclined, think key of G

[2] If funding for the case came from plastic bag makers, the opinion does not reveal this

[3] Like the Second Amendment