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Sunday, February 5, 2012
Whipsawed by New Fees and Charges: Taxpayers Beware
By Lowell L Kalapa @ 7:45 AM :: 4895 Views :: Energy, Environment

by Lowell L. Kalapa, Tax Foundation of Hawaii

One would think that in an election year lawmakers would shy away from raising taxes and imposing new fees, but that is just not the case down at the state capitol building in Honolulu.

Perhaps lawmakers hope no one will notice or that the intent of the new fee or charge will sway taxpayers to “buy-in” to the proposal. However, the real bottom line is that these proposals are nothing more than another grab for money that legislators like to spend.

Take for example a spate of measures that would charge consumers as much as twenty-five cents per bag at the checkout counter of a retailer. No doubt the emotional appeal is that the fee will discourage customers from having their purchases bagged in single-use plastic or paper bags which the proponents believe will be tossed willy-nilly in the trash or allowed to pollute the environment with visions of bags blowing down the street or across the Islands’ pristine beaches.

But the real intent behind such a fee is to raise more money for the state general fund or, as in one proposal, for the state’s trail and access program in the state parks and watersheds. Indeed, in one bill part of the funds is designated to run the bureaucracy that would oversee the program in the department of health. In that bill, $800,000 of the fees would be set aside for the department of health for administrative, audit, compliance, and enforcement activities associated with the collection of the single-use checkout bag fee with any funds in excess of those needs to be used for educational outreach to retailers regarding the single-use checkout fee program. The next $11 million – that’s right, $11 million - of the fee shall be deposited into the natural area reserve fund to be spent by the department of land and natural resources. Funds collected from the new fee in excess of those amounts will be deposited into the state general fund.

Readers should note well that none of the funds collected are designated for the education of consumers to use reusable shopping bags as opposed the single-use bags. Obviously, the proposal has no intention of educating the consuming public that single-use bags are harmful to the environment. So one must ask what is

the purpose of the fee other than to penalize those consumers who do not bring a reusable shopping bag to the store? Will the fee indeed discourage consumers from using single-use bags?

What the fee does do is to make the whole shopping experience regressive. For those who can afford the extra twenty-five cents per bag they probably will not blink an eye in exchange for the convenience of not having to drag a reusable bag to the store while those who can’t afford the extra twenty-five cents will be forced to pay should they not have a means of bagging their purchases in a reusable bag. No doubt proponents will argue that the financial disincentive will force customers to change their ways. But will it? And what about those customers who are nonresidents and are suddenly surprised by the charge?

If the authors of these measures were truly sincere about cleaning up the environment, then why not impose an outright ban on such single-use bags. All three Neighbor Island counties have or soon will impose a ban on such single-use bags. So the impact of this bill will largely affect Honolulu consumers where, of course, the bulk of the resident population lives.

No, these measures are nothing more than another legislative grab for money and the sponsors should be ashamed for doing so. Like the “bottle bill” which imposes a nickel per beverage container, there is no return of the fee for the single-use bag. It is an outright tax.

Ah, but this time lawmakers are not making the same mistake they did with the “bottle bill” the proceeds of which went into a special fund to make the refunds required under that bill. No, these moneys are pretty much locked away in the special fund.

With the single-use bag proposals, lawmakers have no shame designating that the funds go to fund not only the natural area reserve fund but also into the state general fund to pay for everything from education to social services. Who are lawmakers trying to fool?

Taxpayers should also remember that the natural area reserve fund is already the beneficiary of earmarked revenues from the conveyance tax. Thus, it is curious why this program is singled out for yet another earmarked source of funds. Perhaps it is time for an audit of the natural area reserve fund. Regardless, taxpayers should be offended by the single-use bag proposal.

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