Updated: March 24, 2014 10:19PM
The Illinois Retail Merchants Association on Monday urged the City Council to go slow — and impose a 5- or 10-cent tax on paper bags — before prohibiting Chicago retailers from putting their merchandise in plastic bags.
Vice-President and general counsel Tanya Triche and lobbyist John Doerrer made their case to Health Committee Chairman George Cardenas (12th) one day before a public hearing on the tougher “ban-the-bag” ordinance recently introduced by Ald. “Proco” Joe Moreno (1st).
Last year, opposition from Mayor Rahm Emanuel derailed a San Francisco-style environmental crackdown that would have prohibited Chicago retailers with more than 5,000 square feet of floor space from putting their merchandise in plastic bags.
Moreno’s new version includes retailers large and small.
That only made the Illinois Retail Merchants Association more determined to convince aldermen to impose a 10-cent tax on paper bags that cost three times as much as plastic bags.
“If you put a tax on the bag, people will start to think first before they take a bag and bring their own bags so they don’t have to pay anything. The consumer decides whether they want to pay more,” Triche said.
“If you don’t tax the bag, larger stores are in a better position to absorb the cost and will. But smaller, independent grocers end up raising prices. A lot of lower-income areas are served by independent grocers. Poor people who can least afford it end up paying a premium for an environmental goal.”
Seattle and “sixty cities in the state of California,” including Los Angeles and San Francisco all ended up imposing a tax — anywhere from a nickel to a dime-per non-reusable bag — because it’s the only way to “shift consumer behavior,” Triche said.
“We’re already having a terrible time trying to attract grocers to food deserts, one of the reasons being it’s expensive to do business here. Now, we’re talking about raising costs on the independent grocers we’re trying to attract. How does that help fill up food deserts?” she said.
Moreno acknowledged that a nickel or dime tax on paper and other non-reusable bags would change consumer behavior more quickly.
“We are not prohibiting any retailer from putting a fee on. If they want to do that, they can. But, what we’re not gonna do is do their bidding [by] putting the tax on for them so they can go to their customers and say, `Don’t blame us. Blame the bad guys down at City Hall,’ “ Moreno said.
“A capitalistic, market-driven, get-government-out-of-our-way industry now wants us to impose a tax and make them tax. And it’s strictly because they don’t want to put it on themselves.”
Moreno said aldermen can always “revisit” a tax on paper bags if consumer behavior doesn’t change.
But, he said, “Let’s not start there with Chicagoans getting nickel-and-dimed. Let’s start with removing plastic bags as a product in Chicago so we don’t have these things floating all over the place, getting in our lakes and clogging up our sewers.”
After meeting with Triche and Doerrer, who served as intergovernmental affairs director under former Mayor Richard M. Daley, Cardenas said he intends to take testimony only at Tuesday’s hearing, then schedule a vote on Moreno’s ordinance on April 15.
“The retailers feel you need two things to make it work: a ten-cent fee and wait until next year to start…For us, a fee at the top is a non-starter. It’s not gonna happen. The longer time frame, maybe. But, the fee is not in the cards,” Cardenas said.
What about Emanuel, who put the brakes on a weaker ban-the-bag ordinance last year?
“The mayor wants to be environmentally-friendly and friendly to business. We have a mission: Ban the bag. Unless something extraordinary happens, we’re gonna go ahead. We have in front of us an idea that’s been cooked for many months. We need to get it out of the oven,” Cardenas said.