LOCAL SPIN: Blow and Go
We can’t get an answer on SB 568.
Thursday, September 13, 2012
Dart Container Corp. is a massive, multinational, multibillion-dollar corporation based in Michigan and run by a pair of brothers who in the early ’90s disavowed their U.S. citizenship and beat feet for the tax-friendly Cayman Islands. From there, they spent a few years battling the Internal Revenue Service before eventually being forced to cough up $26 million in back taxes.
The pioneering manufacturer of expanded polystyrene (what most of us call styrofoam) has two factories in California, one in Lodi and another in Corona, with a combined total of about 600 employees. But they have no factories or workers in Monterey County.
So why am I and at least a few others left with the feeling that Dart’s deep pockets helped tank a state Senate bill measure, and that they did so in part by wooing 28th District Assemblyman Luis Alejo?
In May, Dart donated $1,500 to Alejo’s re-election campaign for the newly redrawn District 30, which includes the Big Sur coast.
In the scheme of things, $1,500 isn’t much. But type Dart into the California Secretary of State’s website search function, and up pop eight pages of similar donations, for a total of $154,825 to various Assembly candidates and a few ballot measures or groups.
With three or four exceptions (including a $3,000 donation to the Society of Plastics Industry PAC made in 2000), all of the donations came in after 2010. That’s about when state Sen. Alan Lowenthal started working on SB 568, a bill banning vendors from dispensing cooked food in foam containers.
“HOW FAST IS ALEJO TRANSITIONING FROM CITIZEN LEGISLATOR TO POLITICIAN?”
In 2011, SB 568 failed to pass the Assembly floor on the last day of session. With organizations like the California Chamber of Commerce and the California Restaurant Association against it, maybe that wasn’t a surprise.
Fast-forward to 2012, and again, SB 568 failed to pass on the Assembly floor in the last hours of the last day by a 26-45 vote. Even Salinas banned foam containers last year, and it’s not like the city is known for its progressive environmentalism.
Alejo, who was named a “floor champion” by the California League of Conservation Voters in 2011, and who voted 94 percent of the time in line with the league’s positions, didn’t vote at all on SB 568. And not only did he not explain why he didn’t vote then; he doesn’t want to explain it now.
“There were some Dems who admitted they didn’t know how they would vote, even at the last hours, but they wanted to stand up and say why,” says Matthew Spiegl, a Salinas attorney, conservationist, Huffington Post writer and ocean advocate who helped push the Salinas foam ban through. “Even a well-reasoned argument against it is better than dodging the topic,” Spiegl says. “Stand on principle on why you’re going against the wishes of your district. How fast is he transitioning from citizen legislator to politician?”
Everyone knows Alejo isn’t afraid to take on tough subjects. Witness his drive to force transparency via a state legislative audit at Salinas Valley Memorial Hospital as one example. So, as Speigl puts it, “How can he not want to address the foam issue?”
Weekly writer Kera Abraham points out in Sept. 6 blog post that SB 568 had a number of local backers, including seven Big Sur restaurants, P.G.’s Passionfish and the city of Monterey. One commenter asked if the Weekly had tried to speak to Alejo about his non-vote, and my answer is, boy, did we ever. Abraham called, and I emailed a few times, to ask why he chose not to vote.
Here’s his emailed response:
“SB 568 failed by 15 votes. That does not mean it’s not a worthy discussion to have, it just means the discussion was not thorough enough to get the support of the Legislature. We must take legislative responsibility with all public policy ideas. We must keep the displaced workers in mind and think creatively to promote healthier product alternatives in the future. I think having that discussion will garner the support of the Legislature.”
Two years of discussion, the backing of many in his district and two failed attempts at passing it, and we’re left with “displaced workers.” So exactly who threatened to put people out of jobs?
As Spiegl puts it when talking about polystyrene foam, it blows and it goes. The product doesn’t break apart into neat little pieces; when crushed, it scatters, to be eaten by wildlife, to end up in the stormwater system and then the ocean. It’s difficult to recycle, and it can’t be recycled into new food containers due to federal rules. So with the November election fast approaching, and a new district that encompasses some of the most pristine coastline on the planet, we have this to say to Alejo: Not voting is not good enough. And neither is that explanation.
MARY DUAN is the Weekly’s editor. Reach her at email@example.com.