Denver’s plastic bag surcharge scuttled

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Brad Jones Contributor
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A plan to charge a tax for plastic bags during supermarket and other retail purchases has been scuttled, for now.

As reported by The Daily Caller News Foundation in August, Denver city council members proposed an ordinance that would punish shoppers for not bringing their own bags through checkout lanes at supermarkets and other large retailers.

Publicized as a “fee” by backers, critics allege the charge amounts to nothing more than a tax, which under Colorado’s constitution would require a public vote to impose.

Though the ordinance has strong support on city council, Denver Mayor Michael Hancock has threatened a veto, citing disproportionate impact on the elderly and poor.

Councilwoman Debbie Ortega, the measure’s sponsor, wrote in an open letter that the measure’s purpose is to “change people’s behavior” and “make our city more healthy and sustainable for future generations.”

Under Colorado’s Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, a 1993 constitutional amendment that limits tax increases and government spending, taxes are subject to public votes but service fees are not. Ortega and her supporters argue the charge is a fee since money raised would be spend on community cleanups, “education campaigns,” a website and “Any other activities determined by the manager [of the Department of Environment] to mitigate the effects of trash associated with disposable bags.”

This doesn’t appease Mike Krause, a Denver resident and vice-president at the Independence Institute, a free-market think tank.

“The city will be using the money paid by people using disposable bags to give away reusable bags to people who aren’t paying the cost; a redistributive give-a-way program on (literally) someone else’s nickel,” Krause says.

A similar law passed by Aspen is being challenged in state court. A handful of cities around the country have similar laws on the books, though in most cases there isn’t a constitutional component as is complicating the picture in Colorado.

Waste removal has been a recurring theme of late in Denver, with a city task force recommending in 2011 the city move to a “pay-as-you-throw” system for trash collection. Currently, residential addresses receive trash and recycling service paid for by property taxes and other general fund revenue. The move was promoted as being more equitable as it would be tied to waste production and reward conservation. Critics alleged the city was grasping for cash.

At a meeting Monday, city council delayed a final vote on the law to Dec. 9, despite having enough votes for passage. The mayor’s office says discussions between now and then will focus on a removal of the fee component from the law, though the law has no bite without it.

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Brad Jones