New Year, New Tax
Happy New Year!
Now pay up.
Our city council and mayor, ever desperate for new sources of revenue, have levied, effective today, a five-cent tax on every paper and plastic bag. So unless you carry reusable bags in your pockets for every unforeseen trip to the store, get ready to shell out.
The stated purpose of the tax is to clean up the Anacostia River and three or four cents of every nickle collected will go to the Anacostia River Protection Fund. Some stores have the option of offering a five-cent credit to customers who bring their own bags. In such cases, store owners will be allowed to keep two of the five cents of the tax they collect.
The bag tax applies to every store that sells food or alcohol. Since Best Buy sells candy near its check out lines, the tax applies there, too; you’d better take a reusable bag to carry your new DVD player home on the Metro.
Paper bags, which are biodegradable, are also taxed, not because of any potential impact on the Anacostia, but because of politics: store owners feared that a tax on plastic bags would encourage customers to opt for their more expensive paper counterparts.
For those who own cars (your author is not one of them), it might be easy to store one’s bags in the trunk and to pull them out at the store. The rest of us are expected to carry bags on our persons, which is a nuisance that the mayor, with his city-provided SUV, and the council, with their free street parking in front of the Wilson Building, probably don’t understand.
Our biggest complaint about this tax is not so much the money, but the degree of condescension it exudes, implying that those who use plastic bags are sinners destroying the Anacostia. Readers of this blog will note our distaste for litter, especially the heaps of it that pile up in front of the Howard Theater on the Block of Blight. It’s easy to levy a feel-good tax, whereas a sustained effort to fine people who litter and to sanction businesses whose customers litter isn’t nearly as sexy.
New Year, Newspeak
Adding to the condescension is the legislation’s wording, which refers to the tax by the more innocuous word fee, as though city residents are too stupid to identify a tax when they see it.
The District Department of the Environment, which is responsible for administering the new tax (oops, I mean “fee”) has jumped on the Orwellian bandwagon, too, refusing to use the word tax. Even worse, their campaign against plastic bags (see the image above) is an exemplar of newspeak, urging us to “skip the bag [to] save the river”. For those of use who don’t litter— the majority of District residents— to “skip the bag” will not “save the river” since we wouldn’t have littered anyway and by reusing other bags, we avoid paying the tax to finance the river clean-up. Ironically, by skipping the bag, we are not helping to save the river.
Cleaning up the river is a worthwhile goal, but levying yet another regressive excise tax wrapped heavily in moralistic rhetoric is neither honest nor fair. Financing river cleanup should come from proven sources of river pollution, including sewers (by taxing water bills), impervious real property (WASA already charges a fee for this), and by enforcing anti-littering laws more aggressively. Many of us, the majority I’d expect, use plastic bags and dispose of them responsibly so they don’t soil our communities and rivers. Nonetheless, we are the scapegoat pretext for this new tax.
We are willing to bet a shiny nickle that this latest feel-good tax will do little to curb littering and we expect the heaps of garbage to continue to pile up in front of the Howard Theater.