Pa. Budget Provision Blocks Plastic Bag Fees and Bans
June 29, 2019 12:27 PM
by Geoff Rushton
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Ferguson Township supervisors were scheduled to consider on Monday night advertising for public hearing a proposed, first-in-the-county ordinance that would impose an impact fee on single-use plastic bags at stores and restaurants, but now it appears that will be off the table.

A state budget-related bill signed by Gov. Tom Wolf on Friday includes a provision prohibiting local governments from enacting fees, taxes or bans on single-use plastic bags or styrofoam containers for one year. In the interim, state offices will conduct economic and environmental studies of such regulations.

Republican legislators added the prohibition to the budget bill earlier this week. Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, R-Benner Township, told the Philadelphia Inquirer that he pushed for the amendment because of Ferguson Township's proposed ordinance and because Milesburg plastic bag manufacturer Hilex Poly is located within his district.

“In my own district, I have a municipality that’s looking at an impact fee, and also I have a manufacturer that makes plastic bags. So you hear from both sides," Corman told the Inquirer. “So we thought the best thing to do to help everyone move forward was to study it.”

Wolf previously vetoed similar, standalone legislation in 2017 that was introduced by former state Rep. Mike Hanna, D-Lock Haven, whose district also included Hilex Poly. But adding it to the budget bill made it impossible for Wolf to veto separately.

Residents brought petitions to both Ferguson Township and State College asking for a plastic bag fee in 2018. Ferguson Township supervisors held a public hearing on the petition in November and voted 3-1 in May to draft the impact fee ordinance. Supervisors were scheduled to vote Monday on advertising the ordinance for public hearing.

The 10 cent fee would not be a tax, but would be charged to consumers at the point of sale and retained by the business. The store or restaurant would use the fee to offset costs of compliance, costs of providing reusable bags to customers or costs of providing educational materials encouraging use of reusable bags.

Stores found in violation would be given 30 days to voluntarily comply. After that period, they would be fined $100 per day if not in compliance. The ordinance also included an exemption provision for businesses that met criteria for undue hardship.

Penn State's Sustainability Institute and a team of Penn State Law students analyzed the issue and potential legal obstacles for the township. In May they presented a few options, including a fee for one-time-use bags, free reusable bags, having business in the area agree on a fee or create a forum to have businesses adopt a voluntary fee that they all agree upon.

The agenda for Monday night's meeting said that Township Manager David Pribulka "has continuing concern that adoption of the ordinance as drafted is premature and continuing public engagement at a regional level is warranted prior to any local regulations being enacted."

Seeking to reduce negative environmental impact, 77 township residents signed the petition requesting the fee in 2018. In State College, which has not moved forward with an ordinance, 144 residents signed.

The state prohibition on plastic bag regulations was met with strong opposition from local government leaders in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh who asked legislators and Wolf to reject the late budget amendment. Philadelphia had been poised to move forward with a ban on single-use plastic bags and a 15 cent fee for paper bags.

Corman also told the Inquirer that outside of Philadelphia, which has greater authority for levying local taxes, a tax on plastic bags in other municipalities likely would be met with a lawsuit.

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