By Paul Maryniak, GSN Executive Editor
An Ahwatukee Girl Scout Brownie Troop of third graders may one day learn the lesson in Arizona hardball politics that their environmental project triggered.
But for now, the 15-girl troop – whose identity is being withheld by GSN at the request of their anxious parents and Scoutmaster Heather Sapp – hasn’t been told that their months-long effort to curtail the release of balloons in Arizona provoked an unusual and strident news release from House Majority Leader Warren Petersen, R-Gilbert.
And even if they eventually learn about the tirade, the girls will likely continue to seek a law that drastically limits the release of balloons into the air, Sapp said.
Many bills are introduced in the State Legislature every session that never get a hearing and subsequently fade into oblivion without a mention – or a press release noting their demise.
But on April 12 Petersen issued a press release to celebrate the fact that HB 2664 was one of them, stating he “applauded House Republicans for killing” it.
“If enacted, HB 2664 would have prohibited the releasing of balloons into the air, as well as mandating expensive warning label requirements for manufactures to affix to balloons prior to sale,” the release began.
It then quoted Petersen as saying:
“With committee work over, it’s all but certain that this radical ‘balloon bill’ will not advance. I’m proud that my Republican colleagues killed a bill with such expansive overreach into people’s lives. Not even 5-year-olds at a birthday party would be safe from such an extreme bill, which would carry a penalty up to $500. This model legislation put forth by my Democratic colleagues is a model of what shouldn’t be introduced in the Arizona Legislature.”
Petersen’s colleague – Glendale Republican Anthony Kern – gleefully tweeted the release.
The bill was introduced by State Rep. Mitzi Epstein, whose district includes Ahwatukee, specifically at the request of her constituents – namely, the 8- and 9-year-old girls who had been working for months to do something about curbing the release of balloons.
So far five states, six cities and two other countries have such laws in recognition of the ecological damage that balloons wreak on the planet.
Dolphins, whales, turtles and many other marine species, as well as animals and birds have been hurt or killed by balloons, which can block their digestive tract as they slowly starve to death. Birds and smaller animals can also become entangled in balloons and their ribbons, left virtually immobile until they die.
Balloons also have been known to spark electrical fires and power outages when they get tangled up in power transformers. Salt River Project estimates that its service areas see 80 outages a year caused by Mylar balloons that were set free.
“It’s not just SRP’s area that is affected; all utility providers, including municipal utilities, face the same problem,” the Arizona League of Cities has stated. “The City of Mesa Energy Resources faces similar Mylar balloon issues especially around graduation season.”
In submitting the bill, Epstein said she was performing a constituent service.
Petersen ironically is doing the same thing on behalf of an 18-year-old Gilbert high school student who sought his help in getting lemonade designated as the state beverage. That bill is still winding its way through the Legislature.
Sapp explained the project started with a reading assignment by the girls, including her daughter Amber that examined the environmental damage caused by balloons.
That damage is extensive enough to have prompted college football champion Clemson University last year to end a 35-year tradition of releasing balloons en masse at the beginning of each home football game.
Disturbed by what they learned, the girls decided to make balloons the target of their Wonders of Water project – one of many activities Girl Scout troops across the country undertake as part of their education in civic responsibility and leadership.
They took a trip to Sealife at Arizona Mills, where an exhibit discusses the harm that trash on the beach and in the ocean causes marine life. One photo in the exhibit shows how sea turtles risk death from balloon fragments.
Sapp’s daughter Amber was concerned – and baffled.
“She said it doesn’t make sense that if littering is illegal, sending balloons into the air is littering and should be illegal too,” Sapp explained.
Because Scout projects are led by the girls themselves, the troop broke into smaller discussion groups to decide what they should do.
Sapp’s group suggested initially that they write to Hillary Clinton to get a ban on balloons – prompting a lesson on the difference between state and federal legislation and a suggestion that the 2016 Democratic presidential candidate probably is in no position to get a law passed about anything.
So, the girls decided to write to a state legislator last fall.
“Because they are girls, they wanted to write to a female legislator,” Sapp explained, noting Epstein was the logical person because the other female LD 18 representative, Jennifer Jermaine, hadn’t been sworn in yet.
“We thought it was going to end there,” Sapp said. “We were so proud of them for taking the initiative.”
But Epstein took it much further than the girls could ever have imagined.
“She invited them over to her house and the girls were so excited talking to this lawmaker,” Sapp said. “We sat down at the kitchen table and she really listened to them. Some of the girls’ ideas were a little outlandish; there was a lot of back and forth and give and take.”
Finally, Epstein wrote a bill, invited the girls down to the Capitol, gave them a tour – and let them drop the measure in the hopper.
The bill called for a maximum $500 fine for the release of more than four balloons at one time and required a warning on every packet of balloons that outlined their menace.
But neither Epstein nor Sapp ever expected the bill to go anywhere this session.
“The girls brought compassion, concern and activism to their project,” Epstein said. “They did research and created posters to help people understand that when pretty balloons become litter, they harm wildlife. Their message: Balloons indoors are fun and fantastic. But outdoors, hang onto them. Do not release them. Instead, the girls suggest lots of alternatives like dancing, shouting, tossing up colorful balls and catching them.”
Moreover, Epstein added, “I did not intend for the bill to get a hearing this year because the Natural Resources Committee had their hands full with the DCP and water issues. This bill deserves attention, so next year we will bring it to the Natural Resources committee.
“For this year,” she continued, “the girls and I drafted a bill that has everything in it – plus the kitchen sink. It is there for the scouts to tell each other about it and see it online, whether they live in Ahwatukee or Yuma or Pinetop. That way, they can discuss which of the ideas should be in the bill for January 2020 and which should not be in the next bill.”
“They have big ideas about how to help people learn that when wildlife eat balloon litter, they can die. In Arizona, bighorn sheep are important to the desert, but balloons can be fatal for them. Balloon litter is also bad for livestock like cattle, turkeys and ostriches.”
Added Sapp: “We knew it wasn’t perfect. It was intended to be a starting point for a conversation. We don’t want to punish anybody for releasing a balloon. The bill ultimately came from a bunch of 9-year-old girls who just want people to stop and think.”
Jermaine, who signed on as a cosponsor, called Petersen’s news release “disheartening.”
“I told Republican leadership that it was a bill submitted by our constituents, girls age 8 and 9 who were learning about the legislative process,” Jermaine told AFN “The bill was never ‘First Read’ and never given a committee hearing, so to say that they ‘killed it’ is dishonest and demeaning of the committee process.”
Sapp said that for now, the girls are still reveling in their accomplishment.
“The girls were so excited with going to the Capitol and actually going through this whole process,” Sapp said.
They likely will continue working on their balloon project.
“Some of the girls know that ultimately, it may never pass but they want to educate people on the danger of balloons. Some have talked about making a music video about it,” Sapp said.
And Epstein is looking forward to the 2020 session when she can craft a bill and actually push it through the legislative process.
Come to think of it, she added, she may have unwittingly attracted an ally from the other side of the aisle.
“I am very glad that Mr. Petersen created interest in the Balloon Bill,” she said. “I think that he and I will enjoy working on the bill to make it just right for Arizona.”
Legislative Dstrict 18 Reps. Jennifer Jermaine, left, and Mitzi Epstein were indirectly attacked by House Republicans. The two legislators, whose district includes Ahwatukee, were acting on behalf of their constituents by proposing a ban on mass release of balloons. (Special to GSN)