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 ugarcia@sfnewmexican.com. Follow him on Twitter @ujohnnyg.

(11) comments

Tom Larrabee

The Santa Fe city council has once again made a mess of things by changing the bag ordinance at the last possible moment. Retail stores spent time and resources to comply with the new ordinance only to have the council take the "teeth" out of the law at the last moment. This has put stores in Santa Fe in a bad position of trying to decide to charge or not to charge for the bags we were forced to start using by the city. You have removed the "requirement" to charge 10 cents and given the citizens of Santa Fe the impression that we are not allowed to charge, or that it is against the law for retailers to charge for the bags that are very costly to the stores. The mandatory fee is the part of the ordinance that matters, without it the customer has no incentive to start using reusable bags. Isn't that supposed to be the purpose of the law? Instead you have turned it into penalizing the retailers and are making them absorb the economic impact of the law. Most retailers will likely pass this impact on to all consumers, reusable bag users or not, through higher prices across the board. I think retailers should ban together and refuse to comply until the city puts the fee back in the law.

Pierce Knolls

Uh, retailers can still choose to charge a fee for paper bags, they're now just not required too.

Jonathan Koolpe

I'm laughing out here in my "lost cause" state of residence (CA). So now this "feel good," so-called "green" law will actually cause more damage to the environment than if these jokers on your City Council had not meddled in this affair in the first place! Absolutely people will just switch to paper (with its higher environmental costs...poor trees!) with at best only a small minority schlepping around reusable bags...it's already happening out my way with our bag bans even though the 10 cent fee is in place.

Hey, at least the law out your way doesn't apply to restaurants (yet) like it does out here...it's a real "joy" to have your take-out food leak all over your car seat or floor and/or clothing since you can't get it in a plastic bag anymore...I watched a poor lady have her entire take out order end up on the sidewalk when it burst through the paper bag she was given...I'm sure her family didn't really need to eat that night...

Brilliant...just brilliant...\sarcasm

Patricio R. Downs

I'm apolitical, but I can't resist saying...

You get the government you vote for.

Jonathan Koolpe

Patricio,

You got it right! :)

But a question for 'ya...how do you feel as an avowed apolitical person regarding government meddling in your life such as these ill-advised, frought-with-unintended-consequences laws that our so-called "leaders" are always passing under the guise of "we know better than you do"? These laws do effect your way of life to at least some degree, yes?

I don't know off-hand who said it first, but there is a famous quote that goes something like, "You may think you can quit politics, but you cannot. Politics will find you." And isn't that the case here yet again?

Steve Salazar

Sorry neighbor, but I can't pick up that dog poop because you and your liberal friends got plastic bags banned in town.

Not to worry, the poop is biodegradeable, if you don't step on it first.

Steve Salazar

Thanks for the reminder, to shop at White Rock, where they still use plastic bags.

Denise Jimenez

I wish some of this time and money spent on the paper bag fee issue could have gone to some constructive solutions. More carrot, less stick. Santa Fe is a green city, and it`s an art city too. How about a campaign for local artists to submit designs for a uniquely Santa Fe reusable bag? The city could have given them out to "celebrate" the bag ban. Hotels could include them as gifts to tourists, because most tourists generally don`t put "reusable shopping bags" on their packing list. What a missed opportunity to advertise and promote Santa Fe!

Destiny Baca

All great ideas Denise!!! You are spot on with all of them.

Dominic Montoya

Here we go again. Our City Council Members fail to see the many faults with the "feel-good" ordinances that they pass. Let us not forget that all it took for our City Council to adopt this ordinance was to have some teacher at some elementary school convince his/her third grade class that plastic bags are bad for the environment. These children then had all of their parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, etc. sign a petition that stated that plastic bags should be banned. Well I do believe that trying to educate people on environmental issues should be a priority, our City Council obviously crossed a line with this ordinance. They really had no business getting involved in the first place. It is obvious that the City Council failed to sufficiently research the impacts of this ordiance before it was approved. Our City Council should not be focusing on being "Green", they should be focusing on ensuring that proposed ordinances will actually have a clear and positive impact on our city.

Luke Armijo

I couldn't have put it better myself. [smile]

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