Having worked in grocery stores for more than 20 years, I’ve asked more than a few customers–“paper or plastic?”

That 20- year-old question now has made its way to Sacramento, where apparently our legislators don’t think we’re capable of answering it for ourselves.

It’s not like they have nothing else to work on: a budget, foreclosures, jobs, education. But since they found some time to focus on our choice of grocery bags, I thought I would take some time to figure out what they’re thinking.

It appears they’re not thinking.

They basically want to punish Californians, who don’t bring their own bags to the grocery store by denying them a plastic bag and taxing them for every paper bag they use. Assembly Bill 1998 is, very simply, a tax that we’ll all have to pay at the grocery store.

This seems harsh and unnecessary to me. The economy is tough right now. People on food stamps, unemployed workers, seniors on fixed incomes, the working poor–there are more now than ever.

I’ve seen all of these folks in grocery stores scrimping to come up with enough change to feed themselves or their families. And now we’re going to hit them with what will amount to a $1 billion tax on their grocery bill just because they didn’t bring a bag?

The law would make grocers charge at least five cents for a bag, although it will allow them to charge much more. And the tax will not provide additional money to help clean up litter–the grocers get to keep every cent they collect.

What’s equally troubling to me is that the state will be using $1.5 million of our scarce dollars to create a new bureaucracy that will police this new law. That’s not exactly what I want my government to be focused on right now.

I care about the environment, and I know that grocery stores have an impact on the environment, what with all the trucks, refrigeration, packaging, parking lots, etc. But banning and taxing bags isn’t going to reduce their environmental impact much, if at all. When grocery stores recently installed recycling bins for plastic bags, that seemed like a reasonable idea. Customers already are coming back to the store–they can just bring along any extra plastic bags they didn’t reuse at home. Or if they want to use a reusable bag, they can do that instead.

It seems to me that the only winner here is the big grocery stores. They will get to save money by not providing shoppers with “free” grocery bags (that most of us use at home for garbage bins and such). I have nothing against grocery stores making money. But I’m glad that I no longer work in stores, where I would be forced to tell customers that they can’t have a plastic bag and have to pay a tax for those formerly free paper bags just to carry their groceries to their car or on the bus ride home.

Right now we’re cutting public safety, education, parks, libraries–and our politicians can’t figure how to balance a budget (something we all have to do every day). Now Los Angeles County’s unemployment rate is at 12.3 percent. People are struggling, looking for work and trying to make ends meet.

Instead of taxing our food budgets, and hiring “bag police” to monitor which bags we use at grocery stores, let’s hire real police to protect us. Let’s hire teachers. Let’s balance a budget. Let’s solve the real problems first. Then, we can worry about how we bag our groceries.

Gloria Allen is a member of the Stockton chapter of the NAACP, a Stockton Unified School District trustee and secretary/treasurer of the California Coalition of Black School Board Members. She’s a retired Safeway employee of 20 years, and currently works part-time at Sara Lee.

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