Ever since the Richard M. Daley administration blew through a billion dollar profit from the sale of the city’s parking meters in a nanosecond, sticking drivers with skyrocketing parking rates and reneging on a promise of long-term budget benefits, taxpayers have been justifiably wary of the “greater good” political spin that’s been accompanying new proposals.
Exhibit A: The city’s corruption-plagued red light camera program that, in retrospect, is more about raising hundreds of millions of dollars to fill budget gaps than protecting grade-school kids around schools.
Also, the Cook County pop tax, which is arguably more about balancing President Toni Preckwinkle’s county budget than protecting people from the health perils of sugary drinks.
Now, with Chicago City Council’s recent approval of a 7-cents-a-bag tax — part of Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s 2017 budget — we have another entry in the growing category of levies imposed with a stated goal of modifying and curbing undesirable behavior.
The bag tax, as Better Government Association investigative reporter Alejandra Cancino explained in a recent story, has its roots in Ireland, which imposed a levy on environmentally unfriendly plastic bags in 2002 that dramatically reduced their use and curbed litter.
That prompted a number of copycat bag taxes in U.S. cities, including Chicago, but the City’s tax — 7 cents, compared with a 30-cents-a-bag charge that changed behavior in Ireland — raises questions about whether shoppers at Chicago grocery and retail outlets will view it as more of an annoying trifle than a penalty to actively avoid.
First Ward Ald. Proco “Joe” Moreno suggested a 10-to-15 cent bag tax — an “adult solution” instead of “baby steps”— but his proposal got little traction.
Critics of these so-called “excise taxes”— levies on specific goods — consider them regressive because they tend to impact low-income earners the hardest.
Another concern: Revenue from the Irish bag tax and levies in some U.S. cities go into funds for environmental programs. Not Chicago, where most of next year’s $12.9 million in anticipated revenue will end up in the city’s precariously balanced main checking account.
“It is not about the environment,” says Kim Wasserman, executive director of the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization, a neighborhood nonprofit.
She says if the city’s serious about reducing bag pollution, it should put its efforts into consumer outreach and education instead of imposing a new tax.
The Emanuel administration maintains its inspiration is in fact “green at heart.”
“Ultimately, the goal is to change behavior and change how people utilize disposable bags,” says Molly Poppe, Office of Budget and Management spokeswoman.
OK, but in a compromise with Chicago retailers to win support for the new tax, the city is undoing a ban on thin plastic bags that was implemented just 16 months ago.
Retailers argued the ban added to their operating costs without significantly reducing bag demand, and the city now calls it a failure, which is disappointing to environmentalists who say too many thin plastic bags end up in landfills, where they don’t break down for hundreds of years, or in waterways, putting marine life at risk.
Another problem for watchdogs like the BGA is transparency: If governments need revenue, say so. Don’t pretend it’s about health, safety or environmental protection.
That feeds into widespread taxpayer cynicism — a perception that elected officials are never straight with them, pitching new revenue schemes with disingenuous explanations instead of figuring out how to run government more efficiently.
So maybe it’s time for public officials to bag the “greater good” claim and admit they’re following the money.
Andy Shaw is President and CEO of the Better Government Association.
Follow Andy Shaw on Twitter: @andyshawbga