Pennsylvania moved closer to preventing its cities and towns taxing or banning plastic shopping bags when state lawmakers narrowly approved a bill that’s designed to protect jobs in the plastic bag industry.
The state Senate on Wednesday approved the bill despite opposition from some lawmakers in both parties, from environmentalists, and from defenders of cities’ rights to determine their own policies on municipal issues like litter.
Advocates for restrictions to plastic bag use argue that the bags add to trash-disposal costs, clog drains, and represent an unnecessary addition to municipalities’ trash stream. More than 160 U.S. cities have already passed some measure to cut plastic-bag use, advocates say, and a number of other countries have sharply reduced bag use through their own taxes.
But defenders of the Pennsylvania bill say that allowing local governments to enact their own rules on curbing bags would endanger the estimated 1,500 jobs that exist at plastic bag manufacturers across the state.
That’s the argument used by Rep. Mike Hanna, a Center County Democrat who was a leading sponsor of the bill, and wants to preserve the approximately 150 jobs at the Novolex plastic bag factory in his district.
The bill was also backed by House Democratic leader Frank Dermody, along with a number of Democratic supporters. Dermody’s spokesman, Bill Patton, said the House leader backed the bill because of the “negative jobs impact” that the bill could have, although no cities have implemented such measures yet. “The potential was there” for job loss, Patton said.
The bill “prohibits political subdivisions from imposing a ban, fee, surcharge or tax on plastic bags at point of sale” but does not prevent retailers from taking their own measures to cut bag use.
Gov. Tom Wolf has not said whether he will sign or veto the bill but his decision could be complicated by the fact that there was bipartisan support for the bill in both houses.
Wolf’s spokesman, J.J. Abbott, said the governor has opposed the bill but will make a decision on whether to sign it when he has read the final version.
“We continue to oppose the bill but the Governor will make a final decision on the bill once he reviews the version on his desk,” Abbott said.
The bill’s supporters say there’s no evidence that local taxes on bags work, and say they impose a burden on the poor who may have to pay a per-bag fee.
But the Plastic Ban Bag Report, an advocacy group, says cities including Washington, DC, Boulder, Colo., and San Jose, Ca., have cut bag use by two thirds or more after imposing a per-bag fee on shoppers.
The City of Philadelphia has opposed the bill, saying the measure would erode its right to make its own decisions on taxes and waste management. A spokesman for Mayor Jim Kenney says he is reviewing the legislation.
The Senate, which has only 16 Democratic members, passed the bill by 28 votes to 21. The House passed the bill in late April by 102 to 87, garnering the minimum number of ‘yes’ votes for passage.
Rep. Greg Vitali, a Delaware County Democrat who voted against the proposal, called it a “terrible bill” that reflects the demands of a special-interest group at the expense of the environment, and stops cities managing a matter that is legitimately an issue for themselves rather than a wider jurisdiction.
“Municipalities should have the tools to deal with municipal problems,” Vitali said. “It puts Pennsylvania in a small group of environmentally regressive states.”
Vitali said he was unaware of any Pennsylvania city, town or township that has a tax or a ban on plastic bags.