Bag-fee bill would raise funds to protect watershed

Honolulu Star Advertiser - February 18, 2013
Sarah Zoellick

Gov. Neil Abercrombie's plan to raise money for watershed protection and invasive species control by charging consumers a 10-cent fee on disposable checkout bags or increasing taxes on multimillion-dollar real estate transactions is alive at the state Legislature.

Last year, lawmakers killed bag-fee bills but agreed to provide the state with more than $5 million to protect Hawaii's watersheds.

Abercrombie said last month in his State of the State address that he now hopes to secure long-term funding.

Abercrombie estimated that a 10-cent fee for single-use checkout bags could generate $15 million for the natural area reserve fund, and that increasing the conveyance tax on high-end property transactions could bring in $10 million.

"I don't think it's a ‘versus' (issue)," said Mark Fox, director of external affairs for the Hawaii chapter of the Nature Conservancy. "The governor put both of those measures before the Legislature as either alternatives or combined opportunities to raise money for watershed protection and invasive species control. So the Legislature can choose between the two, or they can do some combination of the two, and I think either would be an excellent route for them to take care of our forests and our invasive species problems."

The Senate Water and Land and Energy and Environment committees in a joint decision-making session Thursday advanced a conveyance tax bill that would increase the tax as well as raise the percentage of tax proceeds paid into the natural area reserve fund to 35 percent from 25 percent. Senate Bill 1166 moves on to the Senate Ways and Means Committee.

The House Housing Committee amended its version of the conveyance tax bill, House Bill 935, to increase the percentage of the tax that goes toward the rental housing trust fund to 50 percent from 30 percent, while leaving the percentage increase to the nature area reserve fund undetermined.
Rep. Rida Cabanilla (D, Ewa Beach-West Loch Estates), chairwoman of the Housing Committee, said she increased the share to the rental housing trust fund to help her constituents.

"Of course I'm going to fight for them to have what it is that they need," Cabanilla said.

The Senate has yet to hear bills related to a bag fee, though several were introduced this session.

The House, on the other hand, has been moving forward one of the many bag fee bills introduced.

Sen. Mike Gabbard, chairman of the Senate Energy and Environment Committee, said he is hopeful that House Bill 357 could gain traction in the Senate if it crosses over to the chamber later this session.

"I'm not giving up hope on the Senate acting on the House version of the bag bill," Gabbard (D, Kapolei-Makakilo) said, adding that he thinks it is a good way to achieve the state's goals of protecting the environment.

Lawmakers say a statewide law on shopping bags would not pre-empt county ordinances. Kauai and Maui counties banned plastic checkout bags in January 2011; Hawaii County's ban takes effect in January 2014, and Hono¬lulu's in July 2015.

Rep. Angus McKelvey (D, Lahaina-Kaanapali-Honokohau), chairman of the House Consumer Protection and Commerce Committee, said his committee passed and amended the measure earlier this week to clarify that the fee would apply to paper single-use bags in addition to plastic.

Business groups such as Retail Merchants of Hawaii have opposed bag-fee legislation, saying it would hurt businesses and consumers.

McKelvey said he addressed some of those concerns by also amending the bill to read that fines and punishments "may" be imposed instead of "shall" be imposed to protect small businesses from harsh penalties.

"We thought it was really hard-hammered to nail them off the bat, so this gives the Department (of Health) discretion" in implementing the law, he said. "I'm trying to really be cognizant of the fact that many mom-and-pops … may inadvertently not comply, and they shouldn't get pounded for it."

McKelvey said he supports the single-use bag fee as a way to change people's habits but said the state should continue to look for more sustainable ways to fund watershed protection because the revenue generated from a bag fee is likely to decrease as people switch to reusable bags.