Let's Be Frank: Chicago Bag Tax More About Bucks Than Environment

Pretending the bag tax is about anything other than revenue just breeds cynicism in already suspicious Chicagoans.

Ever since the 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 without the promised long-term budget benefits, taxpayers have been justifiably wary of the “greater good” political spin that accompanies new proposals.

Recent examples include 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; and the Cook County pop tax, which is arguably more about balancing President Toni Preckwinkle’s county budget than protecting people from the perils of too many sugary drinks.

Now, with the Chicago City Council’s recent approval of a 7-cents-a-bag tax, as part of Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s 2017 budget, we have a new entry in a growing category of levies imposed with a stated goal of modifying and curbing undesirable behavior.

The bag tax, as Better Government Association investigator Alejandra Cancino explained in a recent story, has its roots in Ireland, which in 2002 imposed a levy on environmentally unfriendly plastic bags 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 the 30-cents-a-bag charge that successfully curbed behavior in Ireland—raises questions about whether shoppers at Chicago grocery and retail outlets will view it more as 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: Proceeds from the Irish bag tax and some in U.S. cities are channeled into funds for environmental programs. Not Chicago, where most of next year’s $12.9 million in anticipated revenue will go straight into 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 “green at heart.”

 “Ultimately, the goal of is to change behavior and change how people utilize disposable bags,” says Molly Poppe, Office of Budget and Management spokeswoman.

Okay, 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 reducing bag demand significantly, and the city now calls the effort a failure, which is disappointing to environmentalists who say too many 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 government needs 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 play it straight.

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