Welcome to the era of one-party rule.
Right out of the gate in this year’s legislative session, the GOP-led legislature passed a gas tax increase.
Next came vows to “invest” in education with more spending. If you add to that government employee pay raises, prison reform, hints at Medicaid expansion and the creation of a lottery, you might think Democrats at some point regained some of their influence in Montgomery, if not obtaining outright control.
Nearly nine years ago, Republicans assumed control of the legislature for the first time in 136 years. It has been anything but smooth sailing since then. A Republican House Speaker was ousted for violating the ethics laws he shepherded through the legislature. A Republican governor was forced out of office for his icky behavior.
Despite these missteps, Republicans increased their majorities in the 2018 election cycle and now hold a 27-8 supermajority in the Alabama Senate and a 77-28 supermajority in the Alabama House of Representatives.
The Republican Party claims to be America’s small government, conservative political party; so one might think that, at this point in Alabama’s history, the state would be well on its way to showing the rest of the country how limited government, individual rights and free markets are the path to a just and prosperous society.
Last week, State Rep. Margie Wilcox (R-Mobile) showed that sometimes the “R” next to a politician’s name is more indicative of which party accepted the candidate’s qualifying fee and with whom they caucus in the legislature than any kind of ideological identifier.
In an interview with Alabama Public Television (APT), Wilcox argued for the legislature to act on Alabama’s littering problem. That is certainly a worthy cause. A conservative value is upholding the rule of law. Littering is illegal and for a good reason.
Wilcox, however, went beyond strengthening and upholding the current laws on littering. She hinted at the possibility of a statewide plastic bag fee.
“[W]e need to have a mechanism for city, counties and the state — a funding mechanism for them to be able to clean up,” Wilcox said to APT’s “Capitol Journal” last week. “So, there are some proposals that might go into this bill that would fund some of that. Some people are talking about a bag fee. Not quite sure … but you would have like a 5-cent bag fee if you wanted a plastic bag because when you’re picking up litter, those bags are a big part of it. Some of that money could go to the retailer for the cost of the biodegradable bags and what not. Then the other could go to the city or municipality to clean up.”
Whatever the reason, plastic bags have been a topic in this legislative session. Another effort led by House Majority Leader Nathaniel Ledbetter (R-Rainsville) in the House and Sen. Steve Livingston (R-Scottsboro) in the Senate would prohibit local governments and counties from banning or taxing items including plastic bags.
The legislation would leave open the possibility of a statewide ban or tax on plastic bags, as Wilcox has proposed.
Plastic bag bans and taxes are signature policies of so-called progressive and liberal governments. Conservatives tend to favor personal responsibility rather than the heavy hand of government to influence human behavior. Furthermore, a bag tax or fee would be yet another impediment to preserving the state’s brick-and-mortar retail locations.
Last year’s South Dakota vs. Wayfair U.S. Supreme Court decision was heralded by Alabama’s policymakers — but not because it opened the door to raise revenue for state coffers through the Simplified Sellers Use Tax (SSUT) program.
Instead, policymakers applauded the case for making the playing field more level for brick-and-mortar retailers. Before the decision, traditional retailers were at a competitive disadvantage compared to online retailers that had no local taxes levied on purchases.
If the state of Alabama is tacking on an additional 5 cents per plastic bag for shoppers at Walmart, the advantage goes back to Amazon.
One would also have to assume this tax would hit lower- and middle-class shoppers the hardest. Who shops at Walmart, Publix, Winn-Dixie, Greer’s, etc.? Who shops at Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s, where paper bags are the preferred choice?
Moreover, you’re punishing the entire retail shopping public with a tax or fee because of the actions of people who do not properly dispose of their garbage. In what universe is spreading the misery created by the actions of a few something any Republican should propose?
In a radio interview a few days later, Wilcox somewhat backed off the bag tax idea, saying it was meant to be more of a conversation-starter about the littering issue. That’s a bad idea as well. Given the backlash to the gas tax and any other tax increase going back to Bob Riley’s 2003 tax hike referendum, how do you suppose this idea might be received by the public at large?
Alabamians are not going to support a bag tax. Additionally, this is not a culture that will take kindly to a government decree to use recycled grocery bags.
Also, with a bag tax on the table, the “litter” conversation becomes less about litter prevention and more about the government wanting more hard-working people’s money through taxation.
There are already laws on the books regarding littering. It is a Class C misdemeanor with a minimum fine for the first conviction of $250 and a $500 fine for the second and any subsequent conviction. That ought to be enough of a deterrent if it were actually enforced.
Think of all the litter on the roads and highways then multiply that by $250 per instance. That’s a lot of money.
Alabama doesn’t need a “funding mechanism” for litter cleanup in the form of a plastic bag tax. It already has one that just needs to be enforced.
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