A few days ago, Governor Gregoire proposed an array of tax hikes on items deemed as discretionary expenditures, in order cover the budget deficit. The debate between proponents of new revenue sources vs. advocates for reigning in spending will no doubt continue across the local blogosphere and talk radio. One peculiar component of this tax package of particular interest to me, though, is a per-ounce tax on bottled water.
To fill a revenue shortfall in a way that allows for reduced spending cuts, government will often propose new taxes on items that are easier to gain public support for, because they affect only a subset of the population that buy products that can be argued to be discretionary; better yet, they might even be regarded as vices. The latter strategy often gets termed a “sin tax,” which you see commonly on cigarettes, alcohol, gambling-related items, and increasingly targeting obesity-inducing items like candy bars and soda pop. Sin taxes are easier to sell to the public because they carry with them the advantage, along with increasing revenue, of dissuading at least to some slight degree, a behavior deemed less than favorable.
This time they threw bottled water into the mix. Personally, I’ve always felt like paying for water is a little silly to begin with, and I suppose that same attitude allows some to justify this expenditure as discretionary. They might even argue that bottled water, like the other sin tax items I mentioned, is a vice, due to the environmental impact. This is where the logic of such a tax begins to fail me, however, because we’re talking about a per-ounce tax instead of a per-receptacle tax. Basing the tax on the quantity of water in the container punishes those among bottled water users that seem to me to have a lesser environmental impact by virtue of purchasing their bottled water in larger receptacles, disregarding the fact that larger receptacles likely have a much lower ratio of plastic per ounce of water contained than their smaller counterparts will.
If one wishes to gauge the environmental impact of bottled water, I doubt they’ll find the culprits to be businesses who are stocking their water coolers with ten-gallon tanks from the Culligan Man that are usually re-used (which is even better than recycling, by the way) by the company that delivers and replaces them. The problem is the hoards of individual Joe Q. Plumbers out there who regularly buy twelve-ounce bottles instead of just refilling their Nalgenes, then recycle each one. Or worse yet, throw it away because they’re too lazy to find a recycling can. Or still worse, drop it on the ground and contribute to the most common form of littler next to cigarette butts and chewing gum.
Creative new money grabs to fill a budget shortfall are disdainful enough in a state with a spending problem as it is, without piling on a backwards approach of dishing out an equal punishment to those whose vice, if you want to call it that, is to a lesser degree. It doesn’t help the state’s cause of wanting to be on the leading edge of environmental issues, either, when it’s made so obvious that it’s more about the revenue.