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For statewide change, advocates are making their battles local

Increasingly, policy battles are occurring not in the Capitol but in city halls and county seats

As the state's plastic grocery bag ban sits on hold, pending the outcome of a 2016 ballot measure that could nullify it, advocates for the law are returning to familiar territory: California's cities and counties.

For years, they had cobbled together a patchwork of local bans that eventually commanded the attention of state lawmakers, who decided last summer to prohibit the bags. Now, with the threat of a repeal looming, anti-bag activists are again going local, expanding the territory of Californians living under city or countywide bans.

Whether the subject is bags or soda taxes, some of the state's most compelling policy battles are occurring not in the Capitol but in city halls and county seats. Local governments are increasingly a staging ground for issues such as the regulation of electronic cigarettes, limits on payday lenders and fracking moratoriums.

The local efforts can prod the Legislature to act.

"There always were local ordinances that had come from the grass-roots" in a given area, said Paul Mitchell, vice president of consulting firm Political Data Inc. "Now you're seeing a lot of this stuff more consciously being driven … to leverage statewide change."

Political operatives who bypass Sacramento are waging their local campaigns with data-driven sophistication.

"You can't know 3,000 local elected officials personally.... But you can have data on them," said Mike Madrid, a Republican political consultant whose firm, Grassroots Labs, specializes in local politics.

A local official's party affiliation, gender or geographic location can offer powerful clues to how that person may view a given issue. Knowing his or her tendencies and voting histories, "you can dramatically move public policy," Madrid said.

Democrats, for example, are likely to support a bag ban, as are Republicans in coastal areas. All together, such factors can offer a road map to cities and counties that are fertile ground for ambitious policy campaigns.

Many of these issues get their start in famously liberal Bay Area cities. Berkeley passed the first law requiring smoking sections in restaurants in 1977; nearly 20 years later, a statewide law banned smoking in offices, public buildings and restaurants.

San Francisco barred single-use plastic bags in 2007. From there, advocates fanned across the state. By last summer, when Sacramento acted, more than 125 California cities and counties had their own prohibitions on the books.

Bag manufacturers immediately launched an effort to overturn the new law. Meanwhile, anti-bag advocates are pushing a slew of additional local bans. One recently passed in Sacramento; San Diego has also taken steps to craft one.

Local action doesn't always work in their favor. Huntington Beach's City Council voted this week to overturn its plastic bag ban. But the activists' goal is to have half of the state's population covered by a local bag ban by the time Californians vote on the issue next year.

That way, for opponents of the ban, "the best they could hope for would be that they'd be able to continue to sell bags to half the state," said Mark Murray, executive director of Californians Against Waste, which spearheaded the push to outlaw the bags.

The opponents said the repeal effort may cool local enthusiasm for passing such laws.

"You're going to see some places saying… 'Let's wait and see how the voters actually want to weigh in on this issue,'" said John Berrier, a spokesman for the American Progressive Bag Alliance, which is bankrolling the ballot measure.

"The vast majority of these ordinances at the local level mirror, in most aspects, the state law that was passed last year. And [local officials' constituents] will have the opportunity to vote on that."

Activists for other causes are using local ballot measures to press their agendas, such as imposing sales taxes on soda to curb consumption of the sugary beverages. Results have been mixed: Such a tax passed in Berkeley last fall but failed in San Francisco.

Although typically less expensive than statewide campaigns, local initiatives can nonetheless be costly. Advocates for regulation of payday loan businesses have kept their focus on swaying local officials, rather than mounting ballot campaigns.

Detractors of the industry, who say the fees associated with the short-term credit can snare cash-strapped consumers in debt, received a boost last month when federal regulators announced a crackdown on the lenders' practices.

But advocates for stricter laws have been repeatedly stymied in the state Capitol, where their push for caps on interest rates for payday loans has gone nowhere.

They've had victories, however, in cities and counties, which can use their zoning powers to limit the number and location of lenders. More than 20 cities and counties, including San Jose, Fresno and Long Beach, have laws regulating payday lenders, and at least four others are considering them.

Ash Kalra, a San Jose City Council member who successfully fought for his city's law, said powerful industries exert less pull on politicians outside of Sacramento, partly because political contributions are more limited at the local level.

"The most you can give a council member is $500," Kalra said. "Now, I'm not swayed by anyone, no matter how big of a check [they give]. But if there's ever a fear that money has an undue influence, it's mitigated at the local level."

Greg Larsen, a spokesman for the California Consumer Finance Assn., which represents payday lenders, said state legislators deserve "more credit than that."

"Lawmakers, when they're educated about the product, understand that it is a legitimate product that's regulated by the state that consumers clearly appreciate and need," Larsen said.

Since 2000, the industry has spent at least $3.7 million on lobbying the Capitol. But it may soon need to redirect those resources.

"These powerful lobbies are realizing we can control Rome, but we've got no influence in the hinterlands," Madrid said. "And the hinterlands are where all the action is right now."


Twitter: @melmason

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