Virginia should follow D.C.'s bag tax example

Sunday, February 7, 2010

VIRGINIA LAWMAKERS will debate this week whether to impose a tax on disposable plastic and paper bags. They should look to the state's waterways clogged with the bags, listen to farmers whose equipment, crops and livestock are endangered by the litter and then follow the forward-thinking example set by their neighbors on the D.C. Council. A month into implementation of the tax in the District, businesses are reporting bag use cut in half. There's been the usual grumbling that comes when people are asked to change entrenched habits, but that's a small price to pay for cleaner streets, waterways and neighborhoods.

A finance subcommittee in the Virginia House of Delegates is set Tuesday to take up a measure proposed by Del. Adam P. Ebbin (D-Alexandria) that would impose a five-cent fee on disposable paper and plastic bags provided by grocery stores, convenience stores and drugstores. Like the law in the District that went into effect Jan. 1, as well as a measure pending in Maryland, the aim is to discourage the use of the bags. Money raised through the fee would be apportioned between the retailer (either one or two cents depending on whether a customer bag credit program is offered) and to a government fund dedicated to cleaning up Virginia's waterways. The District revenue is dedicated to Anacostia River cleanup; Maryland's fee would go to a trust for the Chesapeake and Atlantic coastal bays.

This is the second year Mr. Ebbin has introduced the measure, and it faces an uphill climb in a state traditionally antagonistic to what it sees as government intrusion in business. Supporters include several environmental groups. Its main opponent is the Virginia Retail Federation, which argues that a tough economy is not the time to impose a new fee. Such thinking ignores the reality that consumers, as D.C. residents are demonstrating, can avoid paying the tax by bringing their own. Indeed, many are finding, as The Post's Jura Koncius reported, that reusable bags are more functional, not to mention fashionable.

There are understandable concerns about how the fee would be implemented, particularly since no state has yet undertaken such an effort. It's still too early to know all the impacts of the D.C. law and whether it will need to be adjusted, but lessons can be learned from how the government got businesses to cooperate in the effort. It's useful in viewing this issue to look back a few years to when the District moved to ban smoking in restaurants. There were grim warnings: Diners would flee to the suburbs, businesses would close, workers would lose their jobs. None of those predictions materialized, and it wasn't long before jurisdictions surrounding the District followed its example.

The bag tax is another example of the city showing leadership on an important issue. Virginia and Maryland should follow suit.

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