Illinois considers tax on checkout bags.
Inside Tom’s Supermarket in Mascoutah, grocery associate Jonny Amann scans chips, eggs, boxed macaroni and cheese, among other items at the register that were purchased by Jessica Smith. Amann then places most of Smith’s items into two single-use plastic bags.
If proposed legislation goes through, Smith would have paid an additional 14 cents on her purchase.
The governor’s office proposed a plastic bag tax as part of its 2020 budget as a way to help close a budget deficit. The idea would follow initiatives in Chicago and Oak Park that now have people pay for taking bags while at checkout.
A bill in the state senate calls for a 7-cent tax on each bag at checkout, with 2 cents staying with the retailer. Bags used to carry items purchased with food assistance programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program would be exempt.
For Smith, she has reusable bags and would be OK if she’s charged for the instances when she didn’t have her own bag. The governor’s office estimated if the state collected a 5-cent tax on each bag at checkout, it would bring in between $19 million and $23 million a year, depending if the city of Chicago is included.
The idea of a tax on checkout bags has been pushed by environmentalists to help reduce waste and litter, as plastic bags are not biodegradable.
“Every so often I wouldn’t mind it, because I need plastic bags for the litter box,” Smith said. “How many of us keep track of a nickel, and it is for a good cause.”
Tom’s Supermarket Store Manager Mike Klein said the store pays about 1.5 cents per bag, which is then built into the price of items in the market. He said very few people bring their own bag, estimating as few as 1 percent of customers. The store does have reusable bags for sale for $1, which can fit the contents of three single-use bags.
“For the most part, it’s not their habit,” Klein said.
Klein added if a tax on bags went into place, the store’s point of sale system would need to be adjusted to be able to keep track of the number of bags used.
One estimate has a plastic bag tax costing an average family $75 a year.
On Thursday Cathy Harris, of Mascoutah, forgot to bring in her reusable bags and ended up purchasing enough items to fill six plastic bags at Tom’s Supermarket.
“The other stores I go to, I need to use my own bags, but here I never have because they have (bags),” Harris said. “How would I feel about having to pay 7 cents? I wouldn’t feel too good about it because it’s just another added expense. Stuff is expensive enough.”
Samantha Sinclair, of Greenville, said a plastic bag tax would be helpful for environmental concerns, but doesn’t want to see it as a way to just create a revenue source for the state.
“So many people just throw them in the trash,” Sinclair said. “You see them on the side of the roads all the time.”
Legislators would need to support the idea
As Gov. J.B. Pritzker has called for a tax on plastic bags to help close a budget hole in the 2020 fiscal year which begins in July.
The governor’s office estimated the tax would generate $19 million to $23 million for the state. The governor’s office did not respond to a request for comment.
Gaining support for the proposal may be difficult to find among metro-east legislators.
State Sen. Jason Plummer, R-Edwardsville, said he agrees there are environmental concerns, but says this effort is more of a revenue play.
“If we’re really concerned on taking care of middle income families and low income families, the last thing we need to do is raising taxes on going to the grocery store,” Plummer said. “Nobody I’ve run into in Springfield has introduced that legislation as an environmental concern. Everyone says here’s an extra $10 million we can get for the state coffers.
“I think there are real environmental issues that need to be addressed, but we should be addressing those issues and not trying to tax plastic bags because it’s a revenue source for state government. We should be trying to go at it from an environmental angle and see what we can do to recycle and preserve and conserve and use fewer bags.”
Some of Prtizker’s fellow Democrats are skeptical.
State Rep. Jay Hoffman, D-Swansea, who also is in leadership in the House, said he has some issues with taxing plastic bags at stores, even though he understands the concerns from environmentalists.
“People go to the grocery store and they get a bag, should we really be taxing them on it?” Hoffman said. “I think that’s a regressive tax on the people who could least afford it.”
State Rep. Monica Bristow, D-Godfrey, said the Democratic caucus in the House has yet to discuss the proposal, but her district may not support the idea.
“I would be against plastic bag tax, because that is what I’m hearing from my constituents,” Bristow said.
Some legislators still taking time to research the proposal.
State Rep. LaToya Greenwood, D-East St. Louis has yet to take a position.
“The process of budget-making is an often lengthy and fluid process,” Greenwood said in an email. “Noting this, I am carefully considering the details of Governor Pritzker’s budget proposal as information becomes available.”
State Sen. Christopher Belt, D-Cahokia, said he is still looking into the idea.
“Before taking a position on this measure, I would like to know the impact it will have on the downstate area,” Belt said. “Ultimately, this may change the way that my constituents shop since it’s going to be another cost that they would have to bear.”
One legislator suggested another way of helping the environment.
State Rep. Charlie Meier, R-Okawville, also is against the plastic bag tax. Meier, who is a farmer, said there should be a push to make plastic bags out of corn, which would be better environmentally than traditional plastic.
“It’s a great idea of not putting more things into the landfills (and) it’s great to encourage people to take reusable bags. I’m in favor of all that,” Meier said. “We can make plastic bags from the corn we grow in our fields here and they would be biodegradable. Should we … be going towards that, a biodegradable bag which goes back to being what grew from the earth first? Just putting another tax, another thing that our merchants, our small businesses have to worry about collecting, no, I’m not in favor of it.”
There was a recent effort in Edwardsville and Glen Carbon to have retailers charge 10-cents per plastic bag, was unsuccessful when organizers found out Glen Carbon would not be able to enact the fee because it is not a home rule community.
Other municipalities such as Washington, D.C. and New York have implemented plastic bag fees. However, some states, such as Missouri, Iowa and Indiana, prevent municipalities from imposing a ban, fee or tax on paper or plastic bags, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Not just a revenue stream
In February 2017, Chicago put in place the city’s 7-cent checkout bag tax. Retailers keep 2 cents, and the city keeps 5 cents for its operating budget.
Now that Chicago has its 7-cent tax in place on plastic bags, it did see a drop in plastic bag usage. The city even initially over estimated by several million dollars how much it would bring in during the first year of the tax.
Ultimately, Chicago brought in $5.72 million from February through December of 2017, and $5.78 million during the same time period in 2018 from the checkout bag tax, according to figures released by the city of Chicago through a Freedom of Information Act request.
A study by the New York University and Urban Labs found there was a reduction in the use of plastic bags after Chicago’s checkout bag tax went into place. More consumers switched to reusable bags or chose not to take bags. Chicago has seen a reduction of 42 percent of plastic bag usage.
“The purpose of implementing this tax has always been about encouraging customers to bring their own reusable bag when shopping. This recycling effort, which is already used across the country, has decreased the number of bags in landfills and in vacant lots, parkways and trees across Chicago,” said Kristen Cabanban, Director of Public Affairs for the Office of Budget and Management for the city of Chicago. “Landfills are not a good environmental policy and growing Checkout Bag Tax revenue has never been our goal.”
However, the study also found, the “tax led to a decrease in the likelihood of using disposable bags throughout the first year of implementation, but the magnitude of that impact diminished over time.”
Even though plastic bag use is still lower than it was before the tax was in place, it did tick back up during the latter parts of the study, which ran from November 2016 through March 2018.
Chicago previously had an outright ban on single-use plastic bags, but there were retailers who found a way around it while still providing convenience to their customers. Some chains, such as Jewel-Osco provided heavier duty plastic bags, or paper bags.
“This change did not appear to directly impact individual consumer behavior, as people could continue using the thicker reusable bags as single-use bags,” the study said.
The idea of a thicker plastic bag could cause concern for those worry about sustainability.
“When your goals are source reduction, reducing litter, and trying to reserve some resources, offering a thicker plastic bags … probably isn’t a direction I would have chosen,” said Mindy Agnew, the sustainability coordinator for the village of Oak Park. “It’s kind of laughable that is considered a reusable bag.”
The village of Oak Park has a 10-cent fee on single-use bags. Retailers keep half of the fee, and the village of Oak Park has used the money its generates to provide reusable bags to residents who can’t afford them.
During the first 14 months of its plastic bag fee, Oak Park has collected between $9,100 and $11,800 a month, with an average of $10,400.
The tax appears to be having its intended affect of people using fewer plastic bags. The village collected $11,277 in January 2018, when the was first put in place. In January 2019 it collected $9,700 from the fee.
The village exempted restaurants, bags used for prescription mediation, yard waste, pet waste, garbage, dry cleaning, newspapers, bags provided by a seasonal stand or street fair stall, such as a farmers’ market, and bags used to carry a perishable grocery.
Many businesses in the 4.5-square-mile village of about 52,000 people that have been impacted have seen a cost reduction because they’re buying fewer plastic bags to provide to customers.
Agnew said the 1 million to 1. 5 million plastic bags a month used in Oak Park has been reduced 150,000 to 200,000 bags in the village bought by businesses in the village. She added the village’s public works staff has seen fewer plastic bags littering the streets of the village.
“We have achieved a significant reduction,” Agnew said.
Agnew added bags provided by stores are not free because the cost of those bags are baked into the prices of items in the store.
“Somewhere, somebody is paying for those bags, whether it’s in the pricing,” Agnew said. “This is pretty transparent. You make the choice, there’s a 10-cent fee for that choice. Your choice could be, don’t get a bag (or) bring one.”
Joseph Bustos is the state affairs and politics reporter for the Belleville News-Democrat, where he strives to hold elected officials accountable and provide context to decisions they make. He has won multiple awards from the Illinois Press Association for coverage of sales tax referendums.
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April 19, 2019 at 12:45PM