Friday, February 5, 2010

All Washingtonians support efforts to clean up pollution. But the Anacos- tia River Cleanup and Protection Act of 2009 is an unfair tax on consumers and businesses. The 5-cent bag tax will be added to the 10 percent District food sales tax, already the nation’s seventh-highest.

Every time you go shopping in a store that sells food - Giant Food, Target, a department store that sells candy bars by the register - you are required now to pay 5 cents, on top of sales tax, for each paper or plastic bag. Every time you grab lunch at the corner deli, you’ll have to pay 5 cents, on top of sales tax, for the bag you need to carry your sandwich and chips back to the office. Every time you’re too tired to cook and bring Chinese takeout home for dinner, you’ll have to pay 5 cents - on top of sales tax - if you don’t want leaky containers to soil your reusable bag. Partial exceptions are sit-down restaurants that have paper to-go bags. Thus, a Morton’s Steakhouse patron won’t pay the tax that a McDonald’s customer will.

Other jurisdictions in the United States - including Virginia - already have rejected similar ill-conceived and unfair proposals. D.C. Council member Tommy Wells, the author of this bill, has never met a tax increase he didn’t like. Oddly, he gave an exemption for hardware stores not to pay the tax. The logic for customers who shop at Macy’s and are required to pay the tax over those who shop at Ace Hardware is hard to grasp. Washington’s families don’t need to be nickel-and-dimed out of their hard-earned money.

First, the bag tax is a tax increase that comes when every cent counts, especially for seniors, low-income families and others who are struggling to make ends meet. The District shares one of the highest unemployment rates in the metro region.

Second, previous taxes and bans haven’t worked. Supporters of the tax frequently cite the example of Ireland, where the sale of plastic shopping bags declined 90 percent after a tax was implemented. However, there was a 400 percent increase in the sale of other plastic bags. That’s because people no longer used shopping bags to line trash cans, clean up after their pets or store their things. In Seattle, residents were so outraged when their city council passed a bag tax that a referendum to impose the tax failed.

Third, the tax hurts our small, locally owned businesses, from the corner supermarket to the mom-and-pop coffee shop to your favorite carryout. Retailers and restaurants alike are forced to retrain their employees to comply with the tax - this is time and money that could be invested in growing their businesses. The 1-cent-per-bag reimbursement that businesses receive from the city won’t begin to cover their implementation costs. Moreover, in the process of complying with this new ordinance, businesses are compelled to upset and alienate their customers with an unpopular tax at the register.

The D.C. Council and mayor have increased their budget 42 percent since 2004; in the District, we have a spending problem, not a revenue shortage. The District’s bag tax will generate only a very small percentage of revenue - causing more pain to District residents than the revenue it generates is worth - and the Anacostia River will remain polluted. Don’t be surprised to see council member Wells and others look to increase the bag tax to 10 cents or 25 cents a bag in the near future.

Robert J. Kabel is chairman of the District of Columbia Republican Committee.

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