D.C. Council Votes Unanimously to Assess a 5-Cent Tax on Paper and Plastic Bags

By Tim Craig and Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, June 3, 2009

The D.C. Council voted unanimously yesterday to assess a 5-cent tax on paper and plastic bags to try to discourage their use, putting the District at the forefront of efforts nationwide to promote reusable shopping bags.

The proposal, which must be voted on again later this month before it becomes law, is designed to limit pollution of the Anacostia River and its tributaries. The tax would apply to grocery stores, pharmacies and other food-service providers.

Council member Jack Evans said the bill can be viewed as a "first step" toward the long-term goal of severely limiting plastic bags and bottles nationwide.

"There is not a river I go to, a park I go, a stream I go to, where I don't see plastic bags everywhere," Evans (D-Ward 2) said. "The fact is our country is becoming inundated with plastic bags and plastic bottles. . . . This is the first step to try to address this issue."

The council vote came during an eight-hour session in which Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) fended off an attempt to shorten the controversial Summer Jobs Program and Michelle A. Rhee came in for some of the harshest criticism she has encountered from the council in her two years as chancellor of the city's public schools.

Under the plastic bag legislation, called the Anacostia River Cleanup and Protection Act, businesses would keep a penny for each bag sold, and the other four cents would go into a fund to clean up the Anacostia. If businesses offer a discount to consumers who bring reusable bags, they would get to keep two cents for each bag sold.

The legislation, sponsored by council members Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) and Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3), was fast-tracked even as some cities rethink proposed plastic bag taxes because of the recession.

The Seattle City Council tried to impose a 20-cent fee on plastic and paper, but the proposal must go before voters in August. In New York, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg (I) had inserted a similar 5-cent fee on plastic bags in his budget proposal, but the City Council blocked the measure last month over concerns that it would hurt consumers in tight times.

San Francisco is the only large U.S. city that has banned plastic bags.

The plastics industry, several local businesses and the D.C. Republican Party opposed the tax. Critics said it would disproportionately affect the city's poorest residents. The city GOP sent out a statement yesterday accusing the council of imposing a $9.5 million tax on District residents.

But the council members focused most of their energies debating how best to send a message to Fenty about some of his fiscal decisions.

Angry that Fenty has failed to adequately fund the Summer Jobs Program, which guarantees a summer paycheck to District residents 14 to 21 years old, council member Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) proposed shortening the program to six weeks. Last year, Fenty expanded the program, which Barry started in 1979 during his first year as mayor, to nine weeks.

The city spent about $55 million, more than double what had been budgeted, on last year's program. With about the same number of young people participating this year, 22,000, Barry and Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray (D) question how the city can afford a nine-week program.

"The mayor didn't send over the dollars," said Barry, noting that the program is projected to cost $45 million and that there is only $23 million for it in the budget.

Barry's legislation was defeated after he failed to get the nine votes required to enact emergency legislation.

"It is too late in the season for us to be changing the rules that we have asked these young people to live by," said council member David A. Catania (I-At Large).

Earlier in the day, Catania and other council members took aim at Rhee over her aggressive campaign to prevent the council from cutting the school budget because of a dispute over enrollment projections. Gray had threatened to withhold $27 million because he did not believe Rhee's projections that public and charter school student enrollment would grow by about 3,000 students next year.

Catania, normally one of Rhee's most steadfast supporters, criticized her for "hitting the panic button early and taking this to parents with this alarmist process."

He said the resulting controversy reinforced the image of D.C. schools as unstable. Barry charged that Rhee "deliberately created a crisis."

"I resent it. I resent it. I resent it. I resent it," Barry said.

"Sending scare tactics that we were going to cut teachers, it was irresponsible," said council member Harry Thomas Jr. (D-Ward 5).

The enrollment dispute is part of a broader set of tensions that have placed the council at odds with Rhee and Fenty over education reform. Although the 2007 mayoral takeover of the schools vests operational power in the mayor and chancellor, many council members say a lack of transparency and willingness to communicate in a clear and timely manner had cut them out of their oversight role.

Rhee said her enrollment projection was based on solid demographic analysis accounting for changes in the District's population and in the size and configuration of the school system.

In the end, she backed away from her position, much as Gray retreated from his threat to sequester the full $27 million. Gray, who plans to hold back $3 million until enrollment projections can be verified, will instead push for the creation of an independent commission to develop future enrollment projections.

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