The Santa Fe City Council on Wednesday voted to drop a 10-cent fee in its plastic-bag ban — set to go into effect Thursday — after city lawyers claimed the fee was an impermissible tax.
At issue were two proposed amendments, which passed on a 7-1 vote. The changes will remove a requirement that retailers charge a 10-cent fee for paper shopping bags and postpone enforcement of the plastic-bag ban until March 27 to allow a 30-day “implementation period.”
“I hate to say it, but I told you so,” said Councilor Ron Trujillo, who cast the sole vote against the changes. “Who’s to say this [10-cent fee] isn’t going to cost the city a lot more down the road?”
Trujillo said he agreed to the amendment to drop the paper bag fee, but he preferred a ban on all plastic bags. The original ordinance, approved by the council in August, will only ban grocery stores and other retail outlets from providing customers with plastic carryout bags that are less than 2.5 mils thick. Plastic produce bags are exempt. Restaurants and nonprofits that serve the needy also are exempt. And stores still will be able to provide smaller bags for bulk items such as meat, produce and bakery goods.
Retailers have said the mandatory fee was a key element of the plastic bag ban. It was meant to serve as an incentive for shoppers to bring their own reusable bags and to reimburse businesses for the higher cost of paper bags. But without the 10-cent fee, consumers will be more likely to use the stores’ papers bags than bring their own reusable bags, some store managers have said.
“The bag fee does create a level playing field for businesses,” said Dena Aquilina, the general manager at Beneficial Farms and a city Business and Quality of Life Committee member who helped draft the original ordinance. “The real goal of this ordinance was for people to bring reusable, washable bags. … And just switching to paper [bags] doesn’t really solve the problem,” she added, ahead of the council’s vote to drop the fee.
“If Santa Fe likes to call itself a ‘green’ city, it needs to act more like one,” she said.
“I wish we weren’t in this situation,” said Councilor Patti Bushee, who voted in favor of the amendments. But she said she hopes the city revisits the issue to find a more permanent solution.
The issue of making retailers charge for paper bags has arisen in other states, notably in Los Angeles County, Calif. In that case, an appeals court ruled that because the retailer was allowed to keep the 10 cents for each paper bag, no revenue was created for the county government, and the charge was not an illegal tax. In Colorado, similar litigation is still pending. Other bans exist in Oregon, Texas, Iowa, New York, Massachusetts, Hawaii and Maryland.
Assistant City Attorney Zachary Shandler said last week that even though the charge was upheld in California, “the analysis was not helpful” to Santa Fe’s ordinance, and New Mexico law is different as far as what a municipality is allowed to tax.
But Gene Valdez, executive director of the New Mexico Grocers Association, disagreed with city officials on the 10-cent fee. He said it would have helped offset the costs to retailers of buying more paper bags.
Valdez said most retailers will adapt to the plastic-bag ban and will encourage customers to buy reusable bags.
“At this point, there’s not much we can do,” he said. “This was just a bait-and-switch thing with the council.”
Paul Bancourt-Turner, regional spokesman for Albertsons, said the chain has advertised to customers that plastic bags won’t be available at its local stores, but paper bags will be available for free. The store also will have reusable bags for sale. He said prices wouldn’t go up on store goods to offset the costs of buying more paper bags.
“It will be the customers’ choice if they want to use paper bags or reusable bags,” he said.
But he told the council Wednesday night that his “fear is we’re going to be pushing people from plastic to paper.”
The city has been conducting an educational campaign on the issue and distributing reusable shopping bags. More information is available at a city-hosted Web page: www.bagtodiffersantafe.com.
Contact Uriel J. Garcia at 986-3062 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @ujohnnyg.