Bag tax refuses to die in Denver

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Brad Jones Contributor
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Denver grocery bags may be safe from a retail charge now, but a key supporter is trying to revive the idea.

As reported by The Denver Post, Councilwoman Debbie Ortega is fighting back against her critics – Mayor Michael Hancock chief among them. Hancock has threatened a veto of the measure, citing its disproportionate effect on the poor. Ortega in turn points to over $1 million in fee increases under Hancock’s watch.

“Looking at a nickel fee is far less than any other fee than we have asked the taxpayer to bear,” she told the Post.

The proposed 5-cent per-bag fee would raise millions for the city, with the money earmarked for buying reusable bags for the poor and environmental education campaigns. While proponents are selling the ordinance as a fee, Colorado law would likely classify it as a tax, since the revenue isn’t tied to services provided the person paying. That would invoke a constitutional requirement for a public vote on its imposition.

Ortega cites increased fees for park use (by $43,800), rec centers ($897,000) and towing ($90,000), among others.

A Hancock spokeswoman replied saying in each case, city council had authorized the increases, and other increases are due to changes in state policy, not a direct action by Denver policymakers.

Over a quarter of the city’s 2011 revenue came from fees and fines, including parking tickets and other citations. The mayor’s office says Ortega’s comparison isn’t valid, since the fees she cites are for “direct services.”

Fees – whether correctly classified or not – have become an increasing share of Colorado government revenue. The practice, while helpful in filling state offers, is controversial. State lawmakers enacted an increase to vehicle registration fees in 2009. The additional money isn’t reflective of increased costs to servicing vehicle registrations but rather road construction and maintenance. Late fees, a “road safety surcharge” and bridge improvement fee are included.

The increase, like Denver’s proposed bag tax, was not subject to a public vote.

Ortega’s political strategy appears to be one of downplaying her fee’s impact in comparison to the flood of increases citizens have already experienced. Given the mayor remains her biggest obstacle, a tactic that highlights his administration may be risky.

Proponents plan to meet with Hancock in the coming weeks in an attempt at crafting an ordinance safe from a veto threat.

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Brad Jones