• Washington, DC Bag Tax After 3 Years: dirtier streets, bigger government

    A funny thing happened when plastic bag tax supporters tried to prove how successful their coercive, Big Government law has been in Washington, DC: they inadvertently undermined their justifications of the law.

    They conducted a spurious, biased and largely meaningless survey to see how the law was doing after three years in force. It was a survey that the Washington Post misled its readers was “independent.” But even with the advocates’ thumbs pressing down on the scale – as we document below – the results came back with bad news for bag tax boosters.

    The poll was directed by OpinionWorks of Maryland, whose motto is “public spirited research.” (The motto is a signal to potential government bureaucrat clients that the polls will be crafted to support expansion of Big Government.)

    But in a shocking departure from sound polling practices that went unreported by government-friendly media, OpinionWorks used District government translators, and staff from two activist groups with a vested interest in the bag tax, to help conduct the survey of District businesses. (Report of Findings, page 2)

    In addition, in its business survey, the polling company weeded out any business that was not complying with the law, since that might hurt the poll’s compliance results. (Report of Findings, page 2)

    So what did these book-cookers come up with? They claimed:

    • 80% of “District residents are using fewer disposable bags”
    • Households are averaging a 60% reduction in bag use since the tax took effect
    • “50% fewer disposable bags being purchased by businesses compared to before the law was implemented”

    The bottom line, they alleged, was “an overwhelming reduction in bag use among District residents.” (Report of Findings, page 3)

    Gosh, if only we could compare those claims against some objective hard numbers … oh wait, we can!

    The District gets tax revenue for every bag sold to a customer (the government kicks back 20% to 40% of this revenue to the stores to win their continued support for the law, but that’s an article for another day). So the Washington Post, to its credit, looked at the actual tax revenue the bag tax brought in to government coffers.


    Bag use is rising in the District, and bag use is now double what the pro-bag tax government experts predicted for bag use by this time!

    Yes, rising. Between fiscal years 2012 and 2013, for example, the revenue increase “represents well over 200,000 additional bags” purchased.

    The Post continued: “According to the original estimates, the city was expected to collect $1.05 million in fiscal 2013, which ended Sept. 30. Instead, it collected in excess of $2 million.”

    Of course, the great thing about Big Government is it never has to say it’s sorry. It predicted, either in good but incompetent faith or in bad faith, that it would take about $1 million from working families last year through this new tax. Instead, it took $2 million. But DC’s not crying. That’s more money for them and less for its residents!

    It’s important to note the lessons here.

    • Bag use is rising three years in, rather than declining.
    • Government estimates about this law were entirely untrustworthy and inaccurate.
    • The financial hit on working families was more severe than they admitted before the vote.
    • The special interests and government agencies with a vested interest in this tax are untrustworthy and their “independent” surveys are demonstrably false.

    Of course, there is one part of the faux-study that is probably accurate: it found that businesses that collect the tax generally like the bag tax. And why wouldn’t they? They get a kickback on each bag sold, and are “forced” to charge for something they used to give away free. (The District estimated that it would kick back more than $3 million to District business owners in the first four years, directly from shoppers’ pockets, not counting any gains those owners would make from distributing fewer bags.)

    No wonder most bag taxes are crafted by politicians working hand-in-hand with the businesses who will profit from them (and who just happen to be campaign donors to the same politicians).

    Remember that this pitiful study was cited by the District government and treated as meaningful by one of America’s leading newspapers. It has no doubt been cited again and again by pro-tax governments and special interests nationwide, almost none of whom likely read the actual survey, as we did.

    For example, the survey asked residents to estimate how many bags they think they used to use three years ago, and how many bags they recall seeing littering their neighborhoods “three or four years ago!” (Report of Findings, page 3)

    The evidentiary reliability of such questions approaches zero. It is utterly useless to treat those answers as legitimate. And yet everyone did, because the ruse is to pretend these bag taxes reduce pollution.

    The survey, as inaccurate as it has been documented to be, did have other interesting findings that bag tax advocates have tried to bury.

    Notably, 12% fewer residents in 2013, after the bag tax had been in effect for three years, graded their neighborhoods as an “A” or “B” in terms of being “clean and free of trash” as gave their neighborhood those grades in a 2010 survey that had asked the same question.

    So after millions in new taxes, hundreds of thousands spent on enforcement and Big Government bureaucracy and a “public education” war against convenient plastic bags, District residents say their neighborhoods have more litter and trash. (Report of Findings, page 4)

    Can you say total failure?

    The study also showed that among racial groups, the District racial group with the lowest median household income, African-Americans, reduced their bag use the least. (Report of Findings, page 5) In other words, bag taxes harm the poorest people the most, those least likely to afford the tax and those least likely to afford buying the more expensive alternatives the anti-bag forces portray as better options. Also, residents over age 50 reduced their bag use less than those under 50: bag taxes disproportionately harm older Americans who need the bags’ lightweight convenience.

    The study also found that even after three years of the bag tax, only 58% of District residents reported bringing more costly, so-called “reusable” bags with them a majority of the time when they shop. (Report of Findings, page 7)

    And some businesses apparently remain more interested in serving their customers than shafting them. Only two-thirds of residents reported “always” being charged for their convenient “disposable” shopping bags.

    (Who could blame these businesses? Twenty-one percent of District residents admit leaving the District often or occasionally to shop elsewhere to avoid the bag tax. [Report of Findings, page 8])

    We put “disposable” in quotation marks because most plastic bags, as even this anti-bag survey concedes, are reused rather than disposed of, another fact that demolishes the ostensible purpose of a bag tax. The government’s own survey of District residents found: “Only one in ten (10%) said they typically throw the bags away.” (Report of Findings, page 7)

    In the survey of businesses, most businesses claim that they are purchasing between 31% and 80% fewer bags than before the bag tax. (Report of Findings, page 13) But as the actual government revenue data show, bag use is double what the government told us it would now be when the bill was being debated, and actually increased last year. As the Washington Post put it: “In fact, bag tax collections have proven remarkably stable since the nickel-per-bag fee debuted in January 2010.

    Ominously, the government-ordered report threatens District residents and non-compliant businesses with further scrutiny to achieve the ends the current tax is failing to achieve. As is always the case with insatiable government, the taxpayer-funded report concludes: “Continued or additional enforcement of the bag law may be required.” (Report of Findings, page 7)

    And so it goes.

    It is sad to see government peddling bogus research, and even more disturbing to see the media treat it as legitimate.

    The real data is clear: the bag tax is a failure, residents report their neighborhoods are now dirtier than before the tax, the tax is disproportionately harming poorer and older Americans, and the only winners are the Government and businesses who are divvying up shoppers’ money.

    Why would any other jurisdiction want to copy that sorry record simply for false environmental promises?