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Originally published August 20, 2009 at 12:18 AM | Page modified August 20, 2009 at 10:09 AM

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Bag fee: bad idea or bad timing?

Why did Referendum 1, which would have imposed a 20-cent fee on disposable shopping bags in Seattle, fail so decisively? Supporters blame the economic climate, political circumstances and the deep pockets of their foes, while opponents say it was simply not the right approach to urge environmental protection.

Seattle Times staff reporter

A 20-cent fee on disposable shopping bags might have seemed the kind of thing environmentally minded Seattle would embrace, but as Tuesday's election proved, the fee was far from in the bag.

Voters dealt Referendum 1 a resounding defeat, with the latest tally showing 57 percent opposing the city's plan to require supermarkets, drugstores and convenience stores to charge the fee for each paper or plastic bag provided to shoppers.

Why did the measure fail so decisively? Supporters blame the economic climate, political circumstances and the deep pockets of their foes, funded to the tune of $1.4 million by the Virginia-based American Chemistry Council, which represents the plastics industry.

Opponents say it was simply a misguided effort.

"The results confirm what the coalition has said from the beginning," said Adam Parmer of the Coalition to Stop the Seattle Bag Tax. "It was a costly and unnecessary tax. ... I think you saw Seattle voters saying this was not the right approach to protecting our environment."

The aim of an ordinance passed by the Seattle City Council last year was to encourage consumers to reduce environmental waste by carting their groceries out in recycled grocery bags or reusable totes. The American Chemistry Council gathered enough signatures to put the ordinance up for public vote.

Brady Montz, a spokesman for the pro-fee Green Bag Campaign and chair of the Sierra Club's Seattle group, said the campaign was hurt by a busy election year that divided the environmentalists' house against itself, crippling efforts to take on such a well-funded opponent.

"There were so many things for people to be working on. ... A lot of people who would have been working together on the campaign were fighting against each other," he said.

But political consultant Blair Butterworth wonders whether campaign strategists were overly comforted by the council's heavy support for the measure. Only mayoral candidate Jan Drago, for whom Butterworth consulted during the recent campaign, opposed it.

"I didn't see much of a campaign myself," he said. "And when it became visible, it was whining about the petrochemical industry. It seems like at the end, it was more about who was opposing it than dealing with some of the issues raised."

Environmentalists, he said, are sometimes accused of insensitivity to economic issues, and such criticism may have undermined the campaign, he said. "There was a bit of the effete about the proposal and the people defending it," Butterworth said. "They were saying, it doesn't matter, it's only a little bit of money."

In that sense, he said, it was badly timed, coming amid such economic angst. "This is the wrong time to be adding a cost," he said. "A number of people may have felt, why don't we try doing it voluntarily, without a penalty?"

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Parmer, of the anti-fee coalition, agreed. "Voters don't respond well to punitive taxes trying to force their hand on certain issues. ... I think it felt heavy-handed," he said.

Montz said the campaign coalesced regardless of the challenges. Despite the defeat, he said, volunteers were stirred to action, and awareness was raised.

"I think we did what we could do," he said. "The fact that they spent $1.5 million and we got 42 percent is actually pretty good."

Marc Ramirez: 206-464-8102 or mramirez@seattletimes.com

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