Affordable housingNews

Colorado bag tax for affordable housing gets sacked in House committee

Author: Joey Bunch - January 31, 2018 - Updated: February 7, 2018

A man carries multiple plastic bags. (ablokhin, istockphoto)

A ballot question to ask voters to approve a 25-cent tax on plastic bags proposed by Colorado Democrats was killed in a Democrat-led committee Wednesday.

Rep. Paul Rosenthal’s bill would have steered the proceeds into affordable housing initiatives, while reducing the number of plastic bags used in the state, which presumably is good for the environment. Bill analysts say the tax could eventually bring in about $40 million a year.

Consumer would pay a flat rate of a quarter per transaction, regardless of how many bags they used. Lower income people would be exempt, as well as take-out bags from restaurants, bags holding prescriptions and those used by dry cleaners.

“Our state is in crisis,” Rosenthal told the committee. “Democratic, Republican, non-political, it doesn’t matter. Everywhere in this state we are facing two huge issues.”

House Bill 1054 died on a 11-2 vote.

Democrats who opposed the bill thought Rosenthal was trying to solve two problems at once, but it complicated  both issues.

“You’ve got two problems and I’m not sure this is the right one decision,” said Rep. Jonathan Singer, D-Longmont, the chairman of the Local Government Committee.

Rep. Larry Liston. R-Colorado Springs, proposed taxing each bag 25 cents to bring in more funds for affordable housing, saying people would reuse bags more if they pay for them.

“This is one of the first times I’ve ever seen a Republican want to raise a tax,” said Rosenthal, a Denver Democrat, favoring his lower tax.

The amendment failed 12-1. Liston even voted, “Reluctantly, yes.”

Liston clarified he wasn’t for higher taxes, in general, but he’s passionate to address affordable housing with other incentives and less regulation.

Rosenthal said he’d be happy if Colorado got rid of all plastic bags, encouraging people to rely on reusable bags, but long-term bags and the tax income would level off.

There’s always going to be some people who are going to use those bags, and those bags will always be prevalent among large retailers” to support the tax for affordable housing, he said.

Rosenthal said he knew the bag tax would be workable, because a handful of cities already use it.

“Obviously, nobody likes to be taxed, but this is workable,” he said. “Why? Because it already is in the state of Colorado. You look at the municipalities that already have a bag tax of sorts. We already do it. If you’re a large retailer in one of those towns, you already do it. You have a system in place.”

The committee heard testimony that paper bags are more expensive than plastic bags.

Ultimately, Rep. Jim Wilson said consumers ultimately would foot the bill, twice.

“You’re saying the businesses are eating that cost of bags, but I don’t think that’s the way the world of business works,” Wilson said. “I’m assuming McDonald’s is charging me more for a Big Mac if they’re not using a plastic bag and using some other expensive mode of serving customers.

“Aren’t we double-sliming the consumer by taxing them and the business person having to raise the prices on that same consumer?”

Kathleen Flynn of Arvada told the committee that it’s a small price to pay — a quarter once or twice a week — and even if lower-income had to pay up, they’re the ones who benefit from affordable housing.

She said lawmakers should refer the question to the ballot.

“I think it’s about Colorado making a dent in plastic bag use,” Flynn said.

Rep. Steve Lebsock, D-Thornton, noted that nothing would stop future legislatures from raiding the bag tax revenue and using it for reasons other than affordable housing.

Joey Bunch

Joey Bunch

Joey Bunch is the senior political correspondent for Colorado Politics. He has a 31-year career in journalism, including the last 15 in Colorado. He was part of the Denver Post team that won the Pulitzer Prize in 2013 and is a two-time Pulitzer finalist. His resume includes covering high school sports, the environment, the casino industry and civil rights in the South, as well as a short stint at CNN.