Year in review: Consumer, public health and voters’ rights advancements provided 2019 highlights at the state level

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Josh Chetwynd

U.S. PIRG and affiliates work in states to improve health, safety and well-being


DENVER – This past year, turbulence and stalemates limited positive change in Washington. But consumer, public health and voter advocacy — often from the national nonpartisan group U.S. PIRG and its affiliates — moved the ball forward at the state level in 2019. 

“State action was a big story when it came to protecting our data, finances, health and voters’ rights in 2019,” said U.S. PIRG President Faye Park. “Leaders and advocates in cities and states avoided Washington’s gridlock and gave Americans the rights they both need and deserve. It takes local action, and we look forward to continuing to build on that momentum in 2020.”

Here is a list of 2019 state-level consumer, public health and voters’ rights highlights, including work done by U.S. PIRG and its affiliates (laws that go into effect on Jan. 1, 2020, are flagged):

Getting “Beyond Plastic” use: Every day, Americans throw away millions of single-use plastic containers and huge amounts of other plastic “stuff.” The mantra “reduce, reuse, recycle” gives consumers choices on how to address the trash problem. Since the 1970s, PIRG has won more than 50 recycling laws, plastic bag bans and other policies. This year, progress was made on the first R, tripling the number of statewide single-use plastic bag bans. With a push from PIRG state affiliates, for the first time in the United States, this included statewide bans on polystyrene foam cups and containers in Maine and Maryland

In addition, ConnecticutMaineNew YorkOregon and Vermont all banned single-use
plastic bags in 2019, joining California, which banned them in 2016. (Oregon’s ban will go into force on Jan. 1.)

Ensuring “Healthy Living”: Preserving the effectiveness of life-saving antibiotics is an essential component to keeping people healthy. In Maryland, PIRG’s state affiliate successfully fought for the General Assembly to pass a bill in 2019 that not only restricts antibiotic use on farm animals that are not sick, but also requires the collection of important data regarding antibiotic use on farms.

Vaping came to the forefront as a public health crisis in 2019 – and state leaders paid attention. Massachusetts, for example, enacted a state law prohibiting the sale of all flavored tobacco products, including e-cigarettes, menthol cigarettes and chewing tobacco. The regulation also imposes a tax on tobacco vaping products at the same rate as cigarettes, increases retailer fines for sales to minors, and provides insurance-covered cessation tools.

Serving as a “Consumer Watchdog”: For five decades, U.S. PIRG has been a leader in keeping consumers informed and protected in a variety of ways. Whether it’s preventing predatory lending or increasing transparency in energy prices, affiliates across the country worked with state leaders to continue this commitment in 2019.

For example, on Jan. 1, California will enact a new online privacy law adding additional protections for consumers. The Golden State also became one of a handful of states this past year, including Colorado and Wisconsin, to bulk up protections against predatory lending. PIRG affiliates worked in all three states for those results.

California joined Massachusetts in enacting new identity theft protection laws as well. The California law requires companies to notify consumers if biometric and/or government-issued ID numbers are part of a data breach, while the Massachusetts law enables consumers to protect their personal financial information by allowing them to “freeze” and “thaw” their credit files for free.

Illinois PIRG was instrumental in passing a bill improving transparency in electricity pricing as well as helping stop electric utilities from extending “formula rates” law, which allows them to significantly raise rates outside of traditional regulatory 

When it comes to prescription drugs, California stepped up in 2019, preventing “pay-for-delay” deals between name-brand and generic prescription drug companies that reduces consumer access to cheaper generic medicines. CALPIRG fought for the measure.

Delivering a “Right to Repair”: Manufacturers of cell phones, refrigerators, computers and other products are intentionally making it difficult for individual consumers to repair the things they own by not sharing the parts and service information required to fix them. In 2019, more than 20 states filed Right to Repair legislation, and PIRG is working to take these bills across the finish line.  

Working to “Transform Transportation”: Automobiles not only create major, ongoing threats to public health and safety, but they also take up a great deal of space, constraining the range of what is possible in America’s cities and neighborhoods. PIRG has a nationally coordinated effort in 11 states to reduce the need to drive, and to electrify cars and buses—to make the easiest, cheapest and most pleasant ways to travel also the healthiest for people and communities. 

Examples of states creating positive change in this area in 2019 include: Arizona, which made plans to boost electric vehicles; Colorado, where more clean cars will hit the road because the state joined the Zero Emission Vehicle (ZEV) program; New Jersey, which invested millions of dollars in increasing electric vehicle use around the state; North Carolina, which made important ZEV strides; and Virginia, which rolled out the nation’s largest initiative to launch electric school buses.

Elsewhere, Wisconsin directed $15 million from the Volkswagen settlement fund to electric vehicle charging and buses, while Nevada both created fines for parking a fossil fuel-powered vehicle in spaces designated for electric vehicles and enacted provisions to boost electric scooter use. In Texas, Houston passed a $3.5 billion bond to expand public transit.

Increasing “Democracy For The People”: Having free and fair elections is a fundamental American principle. PIRG made headway on this vital issue this year. For example, CALPIRG successfully pushed for new laws that provide greater voters’ right and election transparency. One expands election day voter registration and another requires people gathering signatures for initiatives, referendums and recalls to publicly disclose their top three funders. They both go into effect on Jan. 1.

Maryland PIRG was at the forefront of a series of successful state voting and campaign-finance initiatives. In the spring, the Maryland General Assembly finalized a law that allows eligible voters to register or update their registration on election day. In December, Baltimore finalized its own fair elections program. The plan enables candidates who forgo all large contributions and contributions from corporations and PACs to access limited matching funds.

In Oregon, OSPIRG helped get a proposed constitutional amendment onto next year’s statewide ballot. This prospective law would allow campaign contribution limits. OSPIRG also successfully advocated for a law that will increase transparency of campaign spending by “dark money” groups.