Oregon state legislature pushes shopping bag ban at start of 2011 session

Matthew Boyle Investigative Reporter
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Oregon’s state Senate will be conducting a hearing on Tuesday to determine whether the state should be the first in the union to ban non-reusable shopping bags in all retail outlets. The proposed ban would include both paper and plastic bags, with the exception of paper bags containing at least 40 percent recyclable materials. For those bags, shoppers would have to pay 5 cents per sack.

Critics of the proposal say it’s a “purely symbolic” piece of legislation and won’t solve any problems. In fact, some critics say it will create problems by trying to solve non-issues.

In a recent “bag tax” study, Americans for Tax Reform (ATR) and the Beacon Hill Institute at Suffolk University found that a year-old tax on “single-use” grocery bags in Washington, D.C., was ineffective and actually eliminated approximately 100 jobs at retailers throughout the nation’s capitol. By extension, they found that all retail workers will make $18 less on average per year, which doesn’t seem like much at first glance, but adds up over time, affecting the local economy measurably over the period of a decade or more.

The proposal has at least a fighting shot of making it into law, according to Patrick Gleason, the director of state affairs for ATR. The Oregon House of Representatives is split evenly between Democrats and Republicans, and the state Senate has a slight Democratic majority. Gleason told The Daily Caller that ATR is taking this legislation seriously enough to send a representative to Oregon to testify before the state Senate hearing.

“People buy less goods when there’s a tax on the bags, and they’ll avoid the tax,” Gleason said in a phone interview. “They force people to use reusable bags and force people to purchase reusable bags.”

Gleason said consumers in D.C., as predicted, adjusted their behavior to either avoid the tax or budget for it, and that leads to less consumer spending, which, by extension, hurts the economy.

Todd Wynn of Oregon-based Cascade Policy Institute, a free market public policy organization that’s fighting this legislation, told TheDC it’s a “feel good” proposal for “greenies” and won’t solve any real problems.

“It’s interesting because they don’t want plastic in the environment, and none of us do,” Wynn said in a phone interview. “But, it’s really a symbol for the environmental movement as anti-consumerism. It’s an attack on the consumerism ideology.”

Wynn said there are two Republicans in Oregon’s state legislature who are supporting this legislation, state Sen. Jason Atkinson and state Rep. Vic Gilliam. Neither returned TheDC’s requests for comment, but Wynn and Jason Williams of the Oregon Taxpayers Association said they think Gilliam and Atkinson are on board with this proposal for the positive press and publicity – without considering the fact that they’re effectively issuing a tax.

Williams told TheDC in a phone interview that by kicking off the new legislative session with this bill, which he said is “fraught with problems,” the legislature has shown it doesn’t care about Oregon’s high unemployment rate. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ most recent state-specific unemployment numbers, Oregon had a 10.6 percent unemployment rate in December, compared to the national average of 9.4 percent at that time.

“The fact that this thing is coming up the week the session started makes it a priority for lawmakers and that’s sad because it’s a tax on grocery shoppers,” Williams said.