Voters to Decide Fate of Seattle’s Bag Tax

Published February 1, 2009

Falling in with a current fad being promoted as improving the environment, Seattle government officials have adopted regulations imposing a 20 cent tax on disposable shopping bags and setting limits on their use.

Opposition from store owners, consumers, and at least one state legislator has derailed the city officials’ plans. The tax was supposed to take effect January 1 but has been put on hold pending the results of a referendum likely to be held in 2009.

The Coalition to Stop the Seattle Bag Tax wants to let voters decide whether to pay for the use of disposable bags. Early last fall, local election officials confirmed the coalition had successfully submitted more than the 14,000 valid signatures needed to get the measure on an upcoming election ballot.

Voters could have their say in a 2009 special election or the general election in the fall.

A $10 Million Hit

Under the city’s bag tax, all grocery, drug, and convenience stores would be required to collect what city officials are calling an “advanced recovery fee.” The new tax would add a 20 cents per shopping bag cost to each consumer’s receipt for use of either plastic or paper bags.

City officials say money collected from the bag tax could be used for solid waste and recycling programs. Three-quarters of the bag tax revenue would go to fund the programs, and 25 percent would be kept by store owners to pay for the administration of the tax.

Annually the city expects to receive $10 million in new revenue from shoppers paying the bag tax.

State Rep. Dean Takko (D-Longview), who represents parts of southwestern Washington, points out paper bags are made in his district and a special tax on them would hurt his constituents. He will propose legislation in the upcoming legislative session to prohibit measures limiting the use of paper bags.

In 2008, the legislature defeated an effort to ban plastic shopping bags throughout the state. That legislation did not include a ban on paper bags.

Quick Response

City officials approved their bag tax ordinance last summer, and soon afterward the Coalition to Stop the Seattle Bag Tax, led by the American Chemistry Council, began collecting signatures in an attempt to overturn the tax by a vote of Seattle residents.

Jan Gee, president and CEO of the Washington Food Industry (WFI) and a member of the Coalition to Stop the Seattle Bag Tax, told the Seattle Post Intelligencer, “WFI members are very concerned about the environmental issues, but believe strongly it is better to educate and reward citizens regarding the benefits of reusable bags rather than imposing a punitive tax.”

Store owners are proposing they could voluntarily give a five cent rebate for the use of reusable shopping bags. City officials so far have ignored their suggestions for alternatives.

Coalition spokesman George Griffin has been telling Seattle residents coalition members support conservation but do not believe shoppers should be penalized if they forget to bring a bag to the store.

Brandon Houskeeper ([email protected]) is a policy analyst at the Washington Policy Center.