Plastic bag ban or paper bag tax?

Plastic bag ban or paper bag tax?
ESSB 5323 would not only ban single-use plastic bags for carrying out groceries but would also require stores to impose a charge subject to the state sales tax on the use of paper bags. Photo: freepik.com

A plastic bag ban proposal that cleared the Senate last year but failed in the House might make it out of the legislature this time around. Supporters have emphasized the perceived environmental benefits, while opponents caution that the state is venturing into the dangerous territory of dictating what must be sold – and at what cost.

ESSB 5323, sponsored by Sen. Mona Das (D-47), received a 30-19 vote in the Senate on Jan. 15 and was voted out of the House Finance Committee on March 4.

Chair Gael Tarleton (D-36) voted in favor of the bill, though she said “there is no perfect tax policy to figure out how to induce (or) change behavior to stop using plastic bags. I really hope that we can convene a solution to how we combine tax policy with the environmental policies to achieve the objective of banning plastic bags.”

The city of Bremerton last year became the 29th in the state to ban plastic bags, while companies such as Kroger plan to stop using them by 2025.

Under SB 5323 the plastic bag ban would begin in 2021. Exemptions would be made for food banks and food assistance programs, and the ban would not apply to bags used inside the store or when they are used for food or sanitation purposes. As a substitute, stores would be permitted to offer reusable bags or recycled-content paper bags for carryout. The bill also preempts any local plastic bag ban ordinances.

The bill also requires stores to charge a fee for paper carryout bags; an amendment sponsored by House Deputy Majority Leader Larry Springer (D-45) incorporated into the bill by the House Finance Committee allows stores to choose between $.7-$.10. Springer said this “tries to strike a balance between the competing interests in terms of the amount of the fee,” adding that “we have a little bit of negotiating left to do.”

Yet, Rep. Ed Orcutt (R-20) warned that the paper bag fee sets a “horrible precedent” by having the state dictate to private business how much they must charge for a product sold. “We can talk about how it’s only a small amount…but it’s a principle. It is a very, very concerning principle, and it’s an action we should not be taking. It should not be anywhere in this bill, or any other bill on any other topic. I think it (the bill) needs a lot more work, and I am willing to work on a solution that doesn’t violate those key principles.”

Rep. Drew Stokesbary (R-31) noted that the fee collected by stores is subject under the bill to the state retail sales tax. The bill is estimated to bring in $17.6 million through the 2023-25 biennium.

“We’ve got a $1 billion budget surplus…so I think we as a state would be okay without collecting this tax.”

ESSB 5323 has not been referred to its next committee.

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