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Senate Pops Proposal to Ban Balloon Releases

February 8, 2015

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By Kevin Lata
Capital News Service

RICHMOND – The Senate has rejected a bill to ban the intentional release of balloons into the atmosphere, which environmentalists say kill turtles, sea birds and other marine animals.

The bill – a stark contrast to current law, which allows for 50 balloons to be released per person per hour – failed on a 16-21 vote Friday.

Sen. Jeffrey McWaters, R-Virginia Beach, was the sponsor of Senate Bill 1107. He cited a report by the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality that said balloon debris in waterways is one of the biggest problems facing marine systems. Many balloons fall into the ocean and are ingested by animals, often causing death.

However, balloons are popular at birthday parties and other celebrations and commemorations. Some of McWaters’ colleagues ridiculed his bill.

“We have law enforcement that do very important jobs for us now out on a balloon sting – an undercover balloon sting operation,” said Sen. William Stanley, R-Franklin County. He joked that police would be “pegging” 9-year-olds for arrest, and they would then have to post bail.

That seemingly ludicrous depiction of reality under SB 1107 isn’t just caricature. According to an impact statement prepared by the state Department of Planning and Budget, “The DEQ believes an enforcement presence would be required to survey areas where such balloons may likely be released, such as birthday parties, parks, and weddings.”

At the suggestion of another senator, McWaters amended his bill so that it wouldn’t apply to people under 18.

McWaters said the bill was aimed at raising awareness about the hazards of environmental waste. “We’re really not looking for enforcement here so much. We’re really just trying to educate on this bill.”

The senator summed up the message of his bill as, “Do not be a litter bug.”

Asked how his bill would affect the birthday party and clown businesses, McWaters, in a moment of jest, pointed to the Democrats and answered, “I have consulted with my friends over here on the other side, and they tell me that the clown industry is happy with this bill.”

McWaters said the proposed law would not pose a significant cost to the commonwealth. According to the impact statement, DEQ would have to hire six workers – one for each regional office – to help enforce the measure, at the annual cost of $600,000.

It’s uncertain how much revenue the bill might have generated.

It sought to retain the current civil penalty of $5 per prohibited balloon released. Under the existing law, the money goes into the state’s Lifetime Hunting and Fishing Endowment Fund. However, a citation hasn’t been issued since 2009, and the fund has never received any money, according to the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries.

The bill would have changed the law by depositing balloon-release fines into the Litter Control and Recycling Fund, which benefits local governments.

On the morning of the debate, McWaters found his office filled with nearly 300 balloons. Without admitting guilt, Stanley said, “If it was me, I was doing it because if we ban balloons, I had to get it in by July 1.” That is the date new laws passed by the General Assembly usually take effect.

Sen. Ryan McDougle, R-Hanover, sent the Senate chamber into fits of laughter when he said that last weekend, his young daughter asked him to buy her a balloon. He refused, saying he could not because one of his friends was sponsoring a bill to make releasing balloons illegal.

The girl told her father that McWaters was a “bad man” and that he “needed to put him in jail,” McDougle said.

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More on the Web

The Virginia Department of Environmental Quality has posted information about the hazards posed by marine debris, including balloons, at http://tinyurl.com/vdeq-marine-debris

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How They Voted

Here is how the Senate voted Friday on SB 1107 (“Balloons; prohibits release into atmosphere”).

02/06/15 Senate: Read third time and defeated by Senate (16-Y 21-N 1-A)

YEAS – Barker, Chafin, Colgan, Deeds, Ebbin, Edwards, Favola, Howell, Locke, Marsden, McEachin, McWaters, Miller, Saslaw, Wagner, Watkins – 16.

NAYS – Black, Carrico, Cosgrove, Dance, Garrett, Hanger, Lewis, Martin, McDougle, Newman, Norment, Obenshain, Petersen, Reeves, Ruff, Smith, Stanley, Stosch, Stuart, Vogel, Wexton – 21.

RULE 36 – Alexander – 1.

NOT VOTING – Lucas, Puller – 2.