Virginia General Assembly Gives Thumbs Down to Plastic Bags
One of the priorities in the Arlington County Board's 2015 legislative package was to ask the Virginia General Assembly to allow local governments to impose a tax (although the final Board package called it a fee) on plastic or paper bags. (Item 33, County Board agenda, December 13, 2014). Here's the specific terminology from the supplemental report:
"Encourage the use of reusable shopping bags by allowing a locality to impose a small fee for the use of paper and plastic bags, with exceptions for specific items such as certain foods, dry cleaning, alcoholic beverages, newspapers and prescription drugs. Direct the funds raised to a specific purpose such as the state Water Quality Improvement Fund for public water improvement projects."
This morning we learn from an online article in the Arlington Sun Gazette that the bill, submitted by Sen. Chap Petersen (D-Fairfax), died in the state Senate.
"The desire of localities across Northern Virginia to tax single-use plastic bags has died its annual death in Richmond.
"A measure by state Sen. Chap Petersen (D-Fairfax) to impose a 5-cent-per-bag tax on customers in retail outlets was “passed by indefinitely” – sent to a kind of legislative purgatory – on a 14-1 vote in the Senate Committee on Finance.
"Funds raised from the proposed legislation would have been earmarked for efforts to protect the Chesapeake Bay watershed.
"Had Petersen’s measure made it out of the Senate, it would have faced an uphill climb in the House of Delegates. All previous efforts to either impose a bag tax, or allow localities to do so, died in past sessions of the General Assembly.
"Arlington County Board members for several years included the measure in their list of legislative priorities, but other years left it out, under the theory that Arlington’s support for a measure does not help its prospects in the General Assembly."
The details of Sen. Petersen's SB 886 can be found here. At least two other "plastic bag" bill are still afoat in the Senate. Instead of taxing charging a fee whenever a paper or plastic bag was used, the two bills would allow local governments to prohibit their use. This includes Sen. Lynwood Lewis's (D-Accomac) SB 880 (available here) and Senator Jeffrey McWaters' (R-Virginia Beach) SB 1103 (available here), which actually looks to be getting a hearing.
As the Sun Gazette notes, this is not the first time that Arlington County's progressives (aka liberals) have pushed a grocery bag tax. According to Kailee Tkacz wrote at the Tax Foundation's Tax Policy blog on March 21, 2011:
"Though the Virginia General Assembly was unsuccessful in passing grocery bag taxes for environmental reasons, Arlington County officials are seeking federal support instead.
"Congressman Jim Moran (D-VA), a proponent for the failed federal Plastic Bag Reduction Act in 2010, plans to reintroduce like legislation on Earth Day again this year.
"Arlington County Board Member Barbara Favola, who supports the grocery bag tax, cited the success of the District's bag tax by saying that there's been a drop in the number of bags used, and tax revenue is dedicated to cleaning up the Anacostia River. Yet, just four months after enactment of the bag tax in DC, Mayor Fenty proposed raiding the $150,000 fund through an inter-governmental transfer in order to pay for general city services which were not necessarily related to any clean-up of the river.
"Another problem with enacting bag taxes for environmental reasons is that much of the proposed legislation specifically singles out grocery bags, yet grocery bags are not the only bags that lead to pollution. In addition, other states have banned plastic bag usage all together; though extreme, such a regulatory approach removes any doubt in the minds of the taxpayers whether the motive is environmental improvement or revenue generation.
"When speaking on the failed grocery bag tax legislation, Favola said "We didn't really expect it to pass. We're not unrealistic...we know it takes several years of education and information" to change people's minds."
Shortly after the District of Columbia passed their plastic bag tax, the Tax Foundation's Justin Higginbottom wrote a 5-page paper (5/12/10; Fiscal Fact 224), and concluded the District's bag tax was "disappointing in debut." His conclusion:
"Government-imposed charges for bags are best described as pigouvian taxes, though it is not clear how much environmental benefit the citizens will receive if fewer bags are used. The tendency, as in Seattle, is for public officials to greatly exaggerate environmental benefits. And with the likelihood of inter-governmental transfers, bag taxes may just be another way for a state or city to grab general revenue."
For a statewide look at plastic bag legislation, the National Conference of State Legislatures features this summary, including the fact that "California became the first state legislature to enact legislation imposing a statewide ban on single-use plastic bags at large retail stores," in August 2014, which becomes effective on July 1, 2015. Rest assured Virginians, progressives won't give up on banning plastic bags. After all, they're a petroleum product.
Even the liberal Huffington Post glad hands the effort to spread plastic bag lbans to more cities and counties.
But are these so-called environmental efforts effective, or are they just another means by which liberals reach into conservative pockets? In a Tax Policy blog post just one-year ago, Joseph Henchman cites a Washington Post story that found that tax collections are steady, but the claimed usage of plastic bags is down 60%.
Or as Ramon Murphy concludes in a New York Observer story on November 24, 2014:
"So, when the dust settles the evidence indicates that people may actually rather fight to keep their plastic bags rather then switch-making the 10 cent fee a harshly regressive tax on low income New Yorkers. Intro 209, then, fails on its own assumptions, but succeeds remarkably at burdening already over burdened stores and cash strapped consumers.
If plastic bags pose an environmental challenge the City Council needs to find a better way to address the problem. Making our retailers take on the responsibility for the city’s failed environmental policies is simply unfair and counterproductive.
For some opposing views on the plastic bags tax or ban, see these Daily Signal blog entries at the Heritage Foundation -- here for Seattle, here for Evanston, and here for California. See also this Reason Foundation policy study on the environmental and economic effects of grocery bag bans and taxes (HT Heritage Foundation's InsiderOnline) or this National Center for this Policy Analysis policy report (No. 353, December 2013; HT Heritage Foundation's InsiderOnline). Search for other plastic bag reports at InsiderOnline.
Guess it's just the Progressives latest unmet need, eco-fad variety.
UPDATE (2/2/15): Thanks to one of the most inestimable Arlingtonians for pointing out that I tried changing the name of the Arlington Sun Gazette to the Arlington Sun Times. I wish I knew how the synapses fired-off to get that result.