A new policy to tax disposable bags in Washtenaw County may be stymied by the state legislature before it goes into effect, depending on the outcome of a vote in the state House this week.

On June 1, the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners voted 6-2 in favor of a law to institute a 10-cent tax for every disposable bag a consumer uses at retail grocery stores, effective April 22, 2017. The legislation was approved by a House panel on Tuesday, allowing it to move to the House for a vote.

Aiming to block the “eco-tax” from being passed and implemented, the Republican-controlled State Senate passed a bill in May that would, if passed by the House, bar local governments from passing such fees on packaging containers. This legislation represents the first attempt by any local government in Michigan to adopt such an “eco-tax;” however, it faces great uncertainty in the hands of state legislatures.

The bill to prevent the passage of an “eco-tax,” was passed 25-12 along almost entirely partisan lines. 

Commissioner Andy LaBarre said the “eco-tax” policy is a result of efforts by the board to protect the environment and reduce costs. He estimated the county will save approximately $200,000 per year after the policy is adopted — money currently spent on repairing recycling utilities because plastic bags clog the machinery.

“(The law) is designed to help minimize the amount of plastic bags you see floating about in the environment,” LaBarre said. “It is also designed to promote the reuse of plastic bags and paper bags.”

However, some commissioners remain opposed. Commissioner Dan Smith, who voted against the tax, noted the law was rushed through without going through the Board of Public Works and said it would not effectively cut costs.

“I’m the Board of Commissioner’s liaison to the Board of Public Works and there were several members that were rather perturbed that they hadn’t even had an opportunity to weigh in on this,” Smith said. “There was lots of talk made at the time and I saw a recent news article about the thing that’s cost Washtenaw County money. Well, it doesn’t cost Washtenaw County any money because we don’t own any recycling facilities.”

Smith also charged that the board does not have the authority to enact such a law.

“The mechanism that we came up with is convoluted at best,” he said. “There is actually two different attorney general opinions that call into question our ability to do this type of thing without explicit state authorization.”

Republicans and affected businesses have also argued that local taxes like this one create “patchwork legislation” that make it costlier for big, multinational franchises to adhere to all laws in every county.

“Any time you start to see a patchwork approach … it creates another level of complexity that we just don’t necessarily think is the government’s responsibility to be doing,” said Robert O’Meara, vice president of government affairs for the Michigan Restaurant Association, in a press release.

In response to the criticisms, LaBarre said he thought such small policy changes were impactful on these issues.

“This is a good policy and the policies (Republicans) advocate for are largely bad, and so I’d rather have a patchwork good policy doing some good in some areas than a blanket awful policy. So they’re entitled to their opinion; they’re just wrong,” LaBarre said.

A number of Democrats on the board have also argued that the Republican effort to block the law is simply aimed attacking Michigan Democrats, and goes against the fundamental Republican principle of devolving power to states.

“It is showing that their advocacy of the principle of strong local government is really a bit of a charade, and I think they are for strong local governments until they are not,” LaBarre said. “I think they’re just being intellectually dishonest.”

However, Ken Kollman, director of the University’s Center for Political Studies, said while many people view the GOP as a devolution-friendly party, Republicans and Democrats alike tend to use devolution as a purely pragmatic tool.

“I wouldn’t take people’s positions on decentralization at face value,” Kollman said. “Very few people in politics are truly principled about devolution, decentralization and centralization. They tend to want to centralize policies when they have control on the central government and tend to want to decentralize policies when they have control of local governments that are different in partisanship from the central government.”

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