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Empire editorial: Bag this lousy idea

Posted: August 7, 2011 - 8:19pm

The City and Borough of Juneau has more than enough ways to collect taxes without saying “stick-em up!” to shoppers in the supermarket line. A citizen initiative seeking a tax on plastic shopping bags has qualified for the city ballot and goes before the Assembly tonight. During the same meeting, the Assembly may seek to extend the city’s temporary 3 percent sales tax past 2012 by sending the measure to the voters.

This could be a really expensive ballot.

Putting a 15-cent tax on plastic shopping bags is a sneaky way for the obsessively eco-friendly fringe to enforce an extreme environmentalist platform. It entices the city to put free money in its coffers while nickel-and-diming its citizens. It will cost shoppers more money, but it won’t force any but the most economically disadvantaged to bring their own bags to the store. It will also be a burden on businesses during very tough times.

People who want to use alternative shopping bags won’t start doing so because they are bullied into it through economic blackmail. People will simply pay the fee, which will join the new parking meter fees and the already high sales taxes in the city’s bank accounts.

The tax proposal is also fundamentally unfair as it exempts some businesses, creating a two-tier tax system. Is it the city’s job to drive customers from one business to another? And does the business community welcome the chance to spend its resources collecting a new city tax?

This comes down to lifestyle choices and social change. Governments have addressed serious public health issues like smoking in businesses and domestic violence, but even in the most serious areas progress is always slow.

This is not a life or death issue, it’s a proposed nuisance tax to get rid of bags that can already be recycled at our city’s excellent recycling center.

Many shoppers willingly bring their own bags to the market. This is a good idea, because canvas bags don’t bust open and spill groceries into the parking lot like cheap plastic bags.

Even the colorful shopping bags sold with store brands attached and made with recycled content actually keep groceries in one place in the back of the car, and double as really good recycling sorting bags when they get too frayed. The downside to these temporary bags is that they trap crud that might leak from groceries, and they don’t stand up well to repeated washing, like canvas bags.

No one can force people to drag a bag of any kind to the store, and in these hard times supermarkets and other businesses that dispense shopping bags don’t need the added aggravation of dealing with collecting a new tax. Each bag represents sales of merchandise. The sale helps the business keep merchandise on the shelves, employees paid and sales tax dollars flowing to the city.

The Assembly has to do something with this tax, but it doesn’t have to put it on the ballot right now. We hope the Assembly shelves this initiative or sends it to committee for further study. The city could use the time between this election and the next — when the measure will pop up again — to increase public awareness of alternatives to plastic bags and our existing recycling services. This could encourage real lifestyle change and avoid unnecessary taxation.

This is a measure that we hope voters will soundly reject, whenever it gets to the ballot.

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