Plastic bag fee bill set to move to Delaware House floor

Delaware State News | by Matt Bittle

DOVER — A House of Representatives committee came close to releasing to the full chamber Wednesday a bill that would impose a 5-cent fee for every plastic bag a customer uses at a store.

The proposal would require stores charge customers 5 cents for every store-provided plastic bag they use. People who bring in their own bags would not be charged.

Although the bill was not technically approved because the House Natural Resources Committee did not have a quorum, it fell just one vote shy.

One co-sponsor who is in the committee was not present and the bill could be heard on the House floor very soon.

Several cities, such as Washington D.C., have imposed a fee for plastic bags to minimize their use, but no state has done so.

Numerous speakers testified in favor of the bill Wednesday. Supporters said plastic bags take a long time to break down, which they claim harms the environment. Rep. W. Charles “Trey” Paradee, D-Cheswold, referred to them as a “menace,” and an advocate called them an environmental “blight.”

“People are laughing at me as a Republican doing an environmental bill like this, but you know what? This is common sense,” said the bill’s main sponsor, Rep. Deborah Hudson, R-Hockessin. “Think about our next generation.”

Though the dozens packed into the room were in favor of the idea, a few individuals spoke against it.

Mary Kate McLaughlin, representing the American Progressive Bag Alliance, called it “a disguised sales tax,” and Rep. Richard Collins, R-Millsboro, said the added fee would be a burden for businesses.

Supporters of the bill insisted the 5-cent per bag charge is not a tax. They said it is a necessary step to protect the environment.

“If we don’t pay attention to what we are doing to our planet, our society, then we are doomed to forfeit the futures of our children and our grandchildren,” said Rep. John Kowalko, D-Newark.

Private school funding

Earlier in the day, the House Education Committee rejected a bill that would have allowed parents of students with disabilities to transfer their children to private schools and receive state funding.

The proposal, sponsored mostly by Republicans, would enable the creation of savings accounts for special-needs students who leave the public school system.

Under the purview of the legislation, the account would be funded by the student’s share of state funding. The money could be utilized to pay for tuition, tutoring and an online curriculum, among other areas.

The legislation was tabled by the committee after close to 90 minutes of discussion.

Supporters said the bill is about parental choice. They said it would provide more options for children with mental, physical, developmental or other disabilities. Low-income households and families who live in rural areas would particularly benefit, said Rep. Hudson, the main sponsor.

“Delaware schools do teach children with disabilities very well, but the one closest to home for each family might not be the one that absolutely meets the need of that child,” she said. “So Delaware has the responsibility to solve that problem for that child and that family.”

Several parents testified about how switching their children from public to private schools led to a marked improvement in the student’s learning and behavioral progress.

Lawmakers who were opposed criticized the proposal by saying it potentially violates the state constitution, would place additional burdens on the state Education Department and could lead to state funds being used “inappropriately.”

“What I see this bill is as a voucher system to subsidize private schools because their enrollment is down,” Rep. Debra Heffernan, D-Bellefonte, said.

Rep. Kimberly Williams, D-Newport, questioned whether parents of current special-needs students in private schools could request funding if the legislation passed.

Criticism came from both sides of the aisle, with Rep. Harvey Kenton, R-Milford, calling the legislation a “step to destroy our public schools.”

He said the bill could potentially lead to a loss of teachers, as fewer public-school students means less funding is provided.

Rep. Hudson said based on other states that have adopted this model, only 12 students would switch to private school in the first year. However, because of uncertainty regarding that number, the exact financial impact is “indeterminable,” according to a financial analysis conducted by the state.

Currently, the state contributes about 70 percent of the funding for each student, with the district providing the remaining amount. The amount of funding for special-needs students varies from pupil to pupil.

The accounts would have been overseen by the state treasurer’s office with the Education Department setting guidelines and approving transfer applications.

A few other members of the public spoke against the measure, claiming it would take money away from public schools and remove protections offered by the state government.

In the end, the committee tabled the bill, although supporters could still work to address concerns and present the legislation again.

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