Bag tax won't accomplish much 

Washingtonians heading out in search of VitaminWater and bacon to cure their New Year's morning hangovers will be greeted by a new Pigouvian tax at the check out.

Starting this past week, a new 5-cent tax will be imposed on every plastic and paper bag used by shoppers at grocers and other retailers throughout the District.

The bag tax is the result of legislation passed unanimously by the D.C. Council in June. The bill, sponsored by council members Tommy Wells, D-Ward 6, and Mary Cheh, D-Ward 3, was rushed through under the auspices of cleaning up the environment.

That might sound great and will make many District residents feel warm and fuzzy, but previous experience with bag taxes and regulations elsewhere suggests the rhetoric from Wells and company is hollow.

San Francisco went so far as banning plastic bags outright in 2007, becoming the first American city to do so. That extreme measure had zero effect on the city's litter mitigation goals, according to litter audits.

Many bag tax advocates point to Ireland as their standard bearer, with usage of plastic shopping bags declining by 90 percent as a result of its nationwide bag tax. What the na?ve greenies and money-hungry politicians who support bag taxes won't tell you is that total usage of all plastic bags in Ireland actually increased by 10 percent following imposition of the bag tax.

How could that be? Over 92 percent of the population already reuses plastic bags for a cadre of basic household tasks such as lining trash cans. A new levy on bags at the checkout discourages this.

It's also important to keep in mind that the bureaucrats who are going to siphon ever more money out of the D.C. economy aren't exactly stewards of fiscal responsibility. Aside from increasing spending by 42 percent in just five years' time, D.C. Council members think awarding themselves salaries that are higher on average than most governors is reasonable.

It's also important to keep in mind that the bureaucrats who are going to siphon ever more money out of the D.C. economy aren't exactly stewards of fiscal responsibility. Aside from increasing spending by 42 percent in just five years' time, D.C. Council members think awarding themselves salaries that are higher on average than most governors is reasonable.

In fact, Mayor Fenty and council member Vincent Gray, D-Ward 5, each make more than every governor except Arnold Schwarzenegger. The new tax gives them a new slush fund.

Four cents of the new 5-cent bag tax will go into a fund dedicated to cleaning up the Anacostia River. The other penny will be kept by the retailer. Stores that provide incentives to bring reusable bags will retain 2 cents.

Mayor Fenty and council member Wells boast that it will simultaneously increase usage of reusable bags and tidy the Anacostia River. However, the best way to benefit the environment would actually be to request as many plastic and paper bags as possible at checkout, thereby ensuring the new Anacostia River cleanup fund is flush with cash.

Just like the politicians who claim that tobacco tax increases can both reduce smoking and provide a windfall for government coffers, Fenty and Wells either don't see the fault in their own logic or they think their constituents are pretty gullible.

D.C. Council members aren't the only lawmakers to warm up to this policy. More than 20 bag tax bills were introduced over the past year nationwide, and more are expected moving forward. This is just the beginning.

Shortly after the bill's passage last summer, council member Jack Evans, D-Ward 2, stated that the new bag tax was merely "the first step to try to address this issue." District residents and businesses would be wise to keep a close eye on the D.C. Council in 2010.

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A daily newspaper covering San Francisco, San Mateo County and serving Alameda, Marin and Santa Clara counties.
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