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A statewide tax on plastic luggage? For affordable housing?

What if you could create affordable housing options in Colorado and fight pollution all at the same time?

A measure before Colorado lawmakers — House Bill 1054 — seeks to charge shoppers a tax on plastic bags and use the revenue to provide affordable housing solutions. If passed, the measure would go to voters, as required by the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights.

A perfect defense for supporters is that opponents will sound hard-hearted, anti-green and just plain mean. Still, we think this is a terrible idea.

HB 1054 strikes us more as an effort to burnish progressive credentials on the part of its sponsors — Rep. Paul Rosenthal and Sen. Lois Court, both Democrats — than serious legislation. This is a message bill, a get-out-the-vote effort to rally Democrats and make life difficult for Republicans who will rightly see it as a distraction from sound fiscal policy and hurtful for business owners and everyday Coloradans alike.

We say so despite our support for government efforts to build and maintain affordable housing stock and to prevent plastic bags from clogging streams and cluttering the landscapes we love.

Our editorial board supports the idea of reasonable voter-approved taxes on shopping bags. But in these cases of sin-tax-like charges — taxes meant to change public behavior — there ought to be a clear connection between the tax and the program it would fund. If Rosenthal and Court were arguing for clean-up efforts and public awareness campaigns meant to protect Colorado, we would likely see things differently.

Instead, the measure would create a regressive tax largely placed on food, which is and should be exempt as a necessity from sales taxes. Translation: those struggling to pay the rent would have to pay more just to put dinner on the table.

Yes, the tax wouldn’t apply to low-income shoppers who are on food stamps. But that hardly helps the many who make too much to qualify for federal assistance but who struggle to afford soaring rents and housing costs. Especially for those who value walkable communities, and therefore head to the grocery more often, the 25 cent upfront charge for bags — charged regardless how many or how few bags are used — would add up.

And while the measure would give business owners a 1 percent take from the revenue, it still would require additional bookkeeping and logistical headaches that you can bet end up as extra costs passed on to consumers.

What’s more, a study conducted after Washington, D.C., passed a bag fee found that, while it initially lowered public use of throwaway bags, consumption returned after a few years, suggesting that charges should keep rising.

HB 1054 is a lazy way to deal with complex issues. As Rep. Cole Wist, R-Centennial, put it to The Denver Post’s Brian Eason, lawmakers ought to instead focus on other, more direct ways to make life in Colorado more affordable, like regulatory and tort reforms that make it easier for builders of condominiums to build supply that would offset demand.

This one’s too clever by half, even if it promotes laudable goals. And opposition to it shouldn’t be seen as craven or bad, but as understandable.

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