jack kramer / ctnewsjunkie
Plastic bags in use at Stop & Shop (jack kramer / ctnewsjunkie)

HARTFORD, CT — A hearing this week to add a 5-cent state tax on single-use plastic and paper shopping bags wound up turning into a debate about where the estimated $20 million in revenue should go — to environmental projects or the general fund.

Sen. Ted Kennedy Jr., co-chair of the Environment Committee, said part of the money raised “would go back to the stores.”

But the majority of the money, Kennedy said, “would be channeled into environmental projects” that have seen state funding reduced in recent years due to the ongoing budget crisis.

Without the funding from the bill being directed back to environmental programs, Kennedy said he didn’t think the bill “has a chance” to get out of committee.

Wayne Pesce, president of the Connecticut Food Association, told the committee his group, which has been opposed to the plastic bag tax when it has been suggested in the past, is for it now.

“I’m going to throw the committee a little curveball and support this legislation,” Pesce said. “We believe that establishing a tax on plastic and paper bags used to fund education and environmental initiatives makes sense for several reasons.”

He said local grocers can play a role in creating public awareness about programs that promote sustainability and generate environmental benefits. 

Pesce said grocery stores in Connecticut have reduced the number of single-use bags by 30 percent in the past six years but don’t think there is much stores can do on their own to push the initiative.

“We’ve reached critical mass from running this play by ourselves,” Pesce said.

The association believes the industry has done all it can to educate consumers on the importance of recycling and, if the money raised by the tax is used to help educate the public, it will be money well spent, Pesce added.

Rep. Gary Byron, R- Newington, asked Pesce, “Where do you think the money will go?”

Pesce answered: “I would think that any money raised would go into educating consumers were those bag are supposed to go,” noting that most still don’t know that plastic bags aren’t supposed to be put in recycling bins.

“I wish … unfortunately I don’t think the money will go there,” Byron answered. Byron and other Republican legislators on the committee noted that many laws, such as this one, have seen money originally intended for specific uses sifted off to the state’s General Fund instead.

Robert Klee, commissioner of the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, submitted written testimony to the committee that Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s administration objects to a fund being set up dedicated solely to benefit environment projects from receipts raised by the plastic bag tax.

“Revenue associated with the 5-cent per bag fee should be deposited into the General Fund,” Klee said.

Last year the committee passed a bill that would have imposed a 5-cent fee on single-use plastic bags, while the bags were being phased out. Under the legislation, with some exceptions, stores would then have been forced to use only compostable, recycled paper, or 100 percent recyclable bags instead.

While it made it out of committee, it never got a full vote of the General Assembly.

The 5-cent tax had other supporters at this week’s hearing, including Louis Burch, Connecticut program director for the Citizens Campaign for the Environment (CCE).

“Single-use, disposable plastic and paper bags are unnecessary and pose a threat to our environment,” Burch said. “CCE strongly supports this committee’s efforts to reduce single-use bag pollution by placing a 5-cent fee on paper and plastic bags at the checkout counter.

“In Washington, D.C., a 5-cent charge on single use bags led to an 80 percent decrease of single use bags in the first year, and an overall decrease in single-use bags of 60 percent since the law was implemented,” Burch said. “Since 2010, over $10 million collected from D.C.’s bag fee has gone to single-use bags. Anacostia River clean up programs. Recently, Chicago also passed local laws placing a charge on single-use bags.”

But the proposal had its detractors, too.

Tim Phelan, president of the Connecticut Retail Merchants Association, expressed concerns about the proposal, in particular stores that border other states that don’t have such a tax.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo recently signed legislation canceling a planned 5-cent plastic bag fee in New York City.

And Isabel Blank, an intern for the Yankee Institute, submitted written testimony in opposition to the proposal.

“This tax is regressive, hurting the poor more than other groups because low-income individuals are more reliant on the convenience of plastic bags and use them more often,” Blank said.

She said they are often not able to purchase more expensive reusable bags.

“Bans and taxes on plastic and paper bags are misguided and will weigh down the economy and increase costs for both consumers and small businesses,” Blank said. “Taxes on plastic and paper bags force families to spend more at checkout, causing them to lose money and lose customers.”

Gov. Malloy has opposed similar legislation in the past because he uses the plastic bags when he goes for a walk with his dog.

“I appreciate those plastic bags being around,” Malloy joked in 2015.