Editorial: Paper or plastic? Let locals decide tax

The Detroit News

One of Michigan’s most liberal counties plans to impose a 10-cent tax on any bag issued by a grocery store, restaurant or retail outlet. It’s an ill-conceived proposition, but if county officials want to pass the measure, they certainly can. And the Legislature should stay out of it.

Washtenaw County officials say this tax, which would go into effect in April (on Earth Day), is in the name of environmentalism. It will disproportionately affect the county’s lowest income residents while providing an additional funding stream for the county.

Some state lawmakers are trying to preempt the county’s decision with legislation that would prohibit Michigan localities from imposing such fees. But government closest to the people it governs is best, and if Washtenaw County wants to become essentially the only county in the Midwest to impose such taxes on consumers’ everyday activities, the Legislature should let it sink its own ship.

The Senate passed the legislation in May, and a House panel approved the bill last week, reviving the issue. Lawmakers say they want to prevent a patchwork of different taxes around the state. Most grocery store and retail owners don’t like the tax, either.

Although local communities should make these decisions, the bag tax is a bad idea that will negatively impact Washtenaw’s economy by placing this burden on businesses and restaurants — particularly small, independent businesses that can’t absorb new costs like corporate chains can.

Further, by penalizing recyclable paper as well as plastic, the 10-cent per bag tax goes a step farther than even the handful of other cities throughout the country that have enacted such fees on strictly plastic.

Such a move would disproportionately affect low-income residents and workers. The county commission said if those people can prove with ID that they’re on government welfare, they can be exempt from the tax.

Ten cents per bag adds up quickly, and low-income residents shop and eat at establishments that rely on bags more than their well-to-do neighbors.

If Washtenaw County does enforce the tax next year, it would be one of just a handful of other localities in the U.S. to impose such an onerous fee. Other cities include New York; Washington, D.C.; Boulder, Colorado; and Portland, Maine, according to the National Council of State Legislatures.

But consider how the revenue collected from Washington’s plastic bag fee has been used. The fee was imposed in 2009 as part of a broad campaign to clean up the city’s polluted Anacostia River. After a few years of a reportedly cleaner river, however, it’s now reverting back to its pre-2009 state.

The Washington Post’s review of the city’s audit of the fund showed that “more of the fund money has been allocated for field trips for schoolchildren and employee salaries than to tangible cleanup projects on the river and its watershed.”

The Post’s review found only about one-third of the program’s spending and allocations have gone toward traps and other tools to clean the river. And while other studies have found the city’s plastic bag use dropped by about 60 percent, that number will likely rise again as residents get used to the tax.

Michigan’s GOP-controlled Legislature is likely to pass the legislation because of the potential harmful impact on businesses. That’s a concern, but Washtenaw County has the right to impose whatever new taxes it wants. If residents don’t like the decision, they can vote in new county commissioners.