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  1. Opinion

Carlton: Tallahassee, don't tread on St. Pete's ban on plastic straws

St. Petersburg is the kind of town you would expect to ban plastic straws. Some state lawmakers want to make it their call.
Published Feb. 15

For the record, the city of St. Petersburg is in no way identical to, say, the also-in-Florida town of Spuds. (Best known for its amusing potato-related name and also for being a half-hour out of St. Augustine.)

Nor is St. Pete the same as metropolitan Miami, more rural Wauchula or quirky Key West.

This big, long state in which we live contains communities young and old, seaside and landlocked, city and country, conservative and not. St. Pete has its own distinct vibe — its thriving downtown, rolling green waterfront, art, parks, bungalows and annually, the biggest Pride event in Florida.

And, recently, its admirably progressive ban on those plastic drinking straws that currently litter the world.

That is, unless the Florida Legislature decides it knows what's best for the rest of us.

Apparently lacking more urgent matters, your lawmakers in Tallahassee may soon consider whether St. Pete — along with Fort Myers Beach, Coral Gables, Fort Lauderdale and a half-dozen other Florida towns that have taken some action on plastic straws — should have that power to decide for themselves.

Nope, says House Bill 603, co-filed by Rep. Anthony Sabatini, a Republican from Howey-in-the-Hills, which is also not St. Pete.

The bill, and a similar measure in the Senate, means no city, county or other local government entity would be allowed to pass no-straw regulations. It says only the state would be able to do that.

Yes, a separate measure, Senate Bill 502, would in part mean a statewide ban on food-selling businesses providing plastic straws.

But given the aforementioned diversity in sensibilities across the state and the fact that what fits one community doesn't always work for another — imagine the wild chickens of Ybor City strutting the streets of the Villages — I say good luck getting that one passed.

St. Pete, by the way, has gone about its no-plastic push pretty sensibly. Through 2019, restaurants are supposed to offer straws only to customers who ask, with the ban in place by 2020.

And the good people of the town seem to be adjusting. Aaron Pfeiffer, assistant manager at Red Mesa restaurant, tells me less than half of their customers ask for straws. "No one really gets upset about it," he says.

Even across the bridge in stodgier Tampa, waitstaff in certain establishments are also asking first instead of sticking a straw in every ice tea.

The pending bill is all about taking away local control, says St. Pete Mayor Rick Kriseman.

He says sometimes Tallahassee likes to "imply that they know better than we do as to what our citizens want and what's in the best interest of our cities."

"Which I find interesting in that they have no problem telling Washington to leave them alone because they know better how to run their state," he says.

Why in the world would Tallahassee care about straws in St. Petersburg? Or even in Spuds?

The cynical among us would assume it's about business interests that could be hurt as more and more towns decide to stop with single-use plastic that ends up in Florida waterways — our beaches, bays, marine life and tourism being important considerations around here.

Not to get too apple pie about it, but in a country that's like a stitched-together quilt of wildly differing patterns, what could be more American than letting towns decide for themselves?

Here's hoping it's a bill that goes nowhere in the name of progress.

Contact Sue Carlton at scarlton@tampabay.com.

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