Letter from California

An archive of the weekly "Letter from Calfornia", written by Jim McCarthy.

Monday, January 24, 2005

Letter from California-January 24, 2005

If you get your news about California politics from this column, you’re sure to have learned at least one thing: California politicians really have guts. Courage is their middle name. For example, that time my own Assemblywoman took on the dark forces of tanning salons, she really showed the world that she wouldn’t stand idly by while 15 year olds got artificial tans simply because their parents said it was ok. Or how about the time the city of Laguna Niguel bravely stood up against the dangerous chemical dihydrogen oxide in their city, until someone looked it up and found out that dihydrogen oxide is another way of saying H20. Then, of course, there was the time the Assembly rigged the district lines to make sure they’d never lose their jobs, making chumps out of all the voters in the process. Brave? You bet. When they all get together in Sacramento, you’d swear the SuperFriends had abandoned the Hall of Justice in favor of the California State House. If you ever found yourself tied to the train tracks by a mustachioed villain, they’d come to your rescue. First, they’d pass a strongly worded resolution against tying people to train tracks, but being careful not to offend men (or women) with moustaches or to suggest that people shouldn’t ride on public transportation just because of the occasional track-tying incident. Then, they’d keep up the pressure, by piling into taxpayer-owned Lincoln Navigators and getting some big sandwiches at a Jerry’s Deli near the State House. You’re picking up the tab on that, too.

So I actually find myself in support of a proposed new tax in San Francisco that would add a 17-cent tax for every bag you use at the grocery store. In a way. The new tax is designed to discourage people from using plastic grocery bags. Those bags, it is said, cost the city about 6.5 cents per bag to clean up and recycle, and they’re tired of doing all that work for just the money they already get from business tax, income tax, sales tax, property tax, federal and state grants and other fees, including fines for leaving plastic bags on the ground. Still, like I said, I find myself somewhat in support of the new tax for one simple reason: you can see exactly what they’re up to.

That’s right. Everybody in San Francisco will become aware of the extra dough they’re paying for the bag tax or they’ll be aware that they need to dig through the drawer under the sink for a handful of their own. Governments can often be sneaky, hiding the costs of their crazy schemes from you in a dozen fiendish ways, like getting people to vote on a bond to pay for something, guaranteeing that no one understands it but somehow feels that it’s free money. Another strategy is to give something to you and charge someone else, or vice versa. That happens, for example, when taxes are taken from one area and put into the “general fund,” which handles a variety of state expenses including Lincoln Navigators, pastrami Reubens, and the occasional school and police station. Then, there’s the primitive but effective method of making financial commitments and just not paying for them at all. Everyone’s a winner with that one!

Yet, in this case, it’s right out in the open. You pay for play. If you can’t get Woody Harrelson to hand-weave you some hemp grocery bags, you’re going to be out a few coins. If you don’t like it, you know where to mail your love letters. If you think it’s great, you’ll buy a handful of extras, take them home and set them on fire, guaranteeing those bags won’t pollute the ocean any time soon.

So no matter how much of a recycler you are, you can at least respect the fact that the City is looking you in the eye while it puts a gun to your head and shakes you down for a few extra pennies. On the other hand, this new tax would apply to both plastic and paper bags, even though the proponents admit the paper bags don’t kill the hundreds of innocent great white whales that plastic bags do. Why tax paper too? Because why not, that’s why.

So give them credit for having the courage of their convictions, which are basically that all residents should pay them three times more money than it costs the City to clean up a plastic bag, even when the bag isn’t plastic or they don’t have to clean it up. Just don’t make the mistake of thinking there’s some special logic for this particular tax as opposed to, say, a ten-cent tax every time you flush a toilet in the park. Or a buck twenty for putting anything larger than two chiclets in a public trash can. Or a fiver for tracking mud in on your shoes from another city.

Why are they doing this? Because why not? That’s why. Those big sandwiches aren’t going to pay for themselves.


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