George Mason Law School

Plastic bag tax as disposable as what it attempts to reduce

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February 12, 2010

12:30 AM

A subcommittee of the Virginia House Finance Committee is currently considering Del. Adam Ebbin’s (D-Arlington) House Bill 1115, which would tax the use of non-reusable plastic and paper shopping bags. At first glance this bill seems like a positive movement.

This tax would charge $0.05 for every non-reusable shopping bag used with the money raised directed toward the Virginia Water Quality Improvement Fund. It is good to see an initiative toward a greener lifestyle. Even better, I thought, the raised money will go directly to helping the people of Virginia. After reading through the seemingly well thought out exceptions to the tax due to issues of practicality, the bill was even more encouraging.

Upon re-reading this bill, however, several unnerving points became more obvious. First, stores are entitled to one cent of the five-cent tax and two cents if they establish a bag-credit customer program. Furthermore, the bill stipulates a monetary penalty of up to $1,000 for companies that do not collect the taxes. If this bill seems well-intentioned, but something is still bugging you about it, then you, too, have noticed that there is something rotten in the commonwealth of Virginia.

Another issue is that the tax falls squarely onto the consumers’ shoulders. In addition, the bill does not even stipulate a provision for affordable and conveniently obtainable reusable bags. Hence, unless consumers bring reusable bags that they have purchased from elsewhere, companies may be able to force the use of plastic bags and enjoy their one- or two-cent cut. The companies will profit directly from these taxes, and as history has shown, any environment in which profits arise from taxation of the people is ripe for corruption.

Lastly, the rhetoric used shows that the intention of the bill is to cut the use of non-reusable bags; however, in Ebbin’s summation of the bill, he states that the tax would apply to “tangible personal property carried out of the place of purchase.” This means that this bill would not only affect grocery shopping — it would apply to all forms of tangible commodities. Aside from the handful of exceptions, everything from hardware and electronics to floral arrangements, frozen goods and even clothes would be taxed for the use of non-reusable bags. And yes, those monstrous plastic bags from Toys-R-Us during the Christmas shopping season will also be taxed, so be prepared if your family is planning on buying Rock Band for the Wii next holiday season.

Overall, this bill is well-intentioned, but it is clouded and made dangerous by nebulous wording and lack of proper concern for details. Frankly, this bill seems as if it had been drafted by high school freshmen at Model Congress. It may be more prudent for the House to install a reward system for those consumers who do use reusable shopping bags. The downside to that proposition would be that there would be no funds available to be sent to the Virginia Water Quality Improvement Fund.

It is critical, however, that we understand that the weight of this tax will be harnessed solely on middle- to low-class consumers. The upper class either not feel the weight or will not be taxed, since they are more likely to shop at expensive grocery stores like Whole Foods where re-usable shopping bags are already a highly available and regularly used option.

Thus, one is left with two possibilities: either the authors of the bill are naive and careless or they are purposely creating a huge loophole to allow illegitimate fundraising for the Virginia Water Quality Improvement Fund. Sometimes, the best of intentions go awry.

Email Aristotle Herbert at [email protected]

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