Single-use disposable checkout bags — whether paper or plastic — would carry a 10-cent fee charged to shoppers under a proposal that is back before lawmakers.
Several variations of the so-called "bag bill" have been introduced once again after Gov. Neil Abercrombie suggested in his State of the State speech that such a fee could raise as much as $15 million for watershed protection initiatives.
The proposals have the support of environmentalists, preservation advocates and lawmakers who say they address the need to protect Hawaii's critical watersheds and also encourage the overall practice of Hawaii's three R's: reduce, reuse and recycle.
"The Legislature can approach problems like this two ways: We can raise taxes or think outside the box," said Rep. Chris Lee (D, Kailua-Lanikai-Waimanalo), chairman of the House Energy and Environmental Protection Committee. "I think this is a way of allowing funding to be raised for these critically important initiatives without forcing people to pay for it and giving them a choice."
Opponents, including the Retail Merchants of Hawaii and individual businesses, say the fee amounts to a tax that would disproportionately harm those who could least afford it. Many businesses say they already take steps to be environmentally friendly, adding that the 10-cent fee would simply add to overhead costs in a climate where all of the state's four counties have enacted some form of ban on the use of single-use nonbiodegradable plastic bags.
"Of greatest concern is the added cost burden (the proposal) will impose on our residents," Carol Pregill, president of the Retail Merchants of Hawaii, said in written testimony. "This per-bag tax is regressive and will add to the cost of living for our families and consumers who can least afford additional costs at the grocery store."
Advocates note the fee would be voluntary and consumers could avoid paying it by bringing their own bags.
Lee's committee is expected to vote Tuesday on a version of the bag bill similar to one that stalled in conference committee at the end of last session. A few other measures, including those proposed by the Abercrombie administration, have not been scheduled for hearings.
House Bill 357 would impose the 10-cent fee on single-use checkout bags and allocate 10 percent in the first year to businesses to help defray costs of implementation. The bill provides $1.2 million to the Department of Health for administration, with the rest going to environmental protection programs, including the Natural Area Reserve Fund within the Department of Land and Natural Resources for watershed protection.
The administration wants to establish a permanent source of funding for watershed protection programs.
"Any incremental funding that can be provided to the watershed initiative will have widespread and long-term impacts on affordability of our water by pro¬tecting our forests, which are the main source of absorbing Hawaii's groundwater," Emma Yuen, Natural Area Reserves System coordinator, told Lee's committee last week. "It is the most cost-effective and efficient way we can make water affordable into the future as these sources of water become increasingly threatened by invasive species and climate change."
The bill does not pre-empt any current or future plastic bag bans passed by any the counties.
Honolulu last year became the last of the state's counties to enact an ordinance banning single-use nonbiodegradable plastic bags, although it does not take effect until 2015. Maui and Kauai counties already have bans in place, and Hawaii County's ban takes effect this year.
Sen. Mike Gabbard, the Senate energy and environment chairman, said some neighbor island businesses have complained that after the plastic-bag bans went into effect, consumers simply switched to paper bags, often asking for double and triple bags for their purchases.
"That's why we feel like it's a good idea to come up with this," said Gabbard (D, Kapolei-Makakilo). "I think it's a good way to raise money for worthy environmental causes and also to lessen our waste and litter."
Robert Harris, director of the Sierra Club Hawaii Chapter, said the average consumer goes through about 400 plastic bags each year.
"The experience on Maui, in particular, has been that it has been a pretty high transference to paper bags," Harris told lawmakers. "There will be a significant economic impact that everyone will see in the cost of food and the cost of goods if we don't try to figure out a way to get people off the paper bags as well."
Critics of the proposal, including the Tax Foundation of Hawaii, a nonpartisan policy analysis group, call it nothing more than a "grab for money."
"While proponents may argue that such a fee will discourage consumers from using single-use checkout bags, the real reason for this measure is to merely to raise more money to fund government programs," the Tax Foundation said in its testimony.
Lee said his committee, which heard the bill Thursday, wants to work with environmental groups and businesses to come up with a compromise.
Supporters note the overall goal is to change behavior and move toward a more sustainable lifestyle.
"We shouldn't have to live in a disposable world," state Deputy Health Director Gary Gill told lawmakers. "We should try to create fewer product, less waste.
"I think that's the crux of this bill is to encourage people to bring their own reusable bag, not to just use something and just throw it away after a single use."