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Philadelphia eyes a new fee on shopping bags

City Council has tried to ban them and tax them, but plastic bags have continued to flutter out of Philadelphia's reach. Now one member of Council is targeting them anew - with a bill to impose a five-cent fee on all shopping bags, paper and plastic.

City Council has tried to ban them and tax them, but plastic bags have continued to flutter out of Philadelphia's reach. Now one member of Council is targeting them anew - with a bill to impose a five-cent fee on all shopping bags, paper and plastic.

"People go into convenience stores and come out with a bag that they really didn't need and toss it onto the streets," said Councilman Mark Squilla, who introduced the bill Thursday.

About a dozen states and scores of municipalities - including Washington, Chicago, and San Francisco - have passed laws to regulate plastic bags. Efforts to do so in Philadelphia have met opposition from the city's business community and the companies that make the bags.

In 2009, then-Councilman James F. Kenney blamed ShopRite, and urged residents to boycott the supermarket, when a bag ban was voted down by Council. The bill would have imposed a 25-cent fee on each bag but was amended to a ban after lobbyists argued that the fee would hurt the poor.

The nickel fee in Squilla's bill would be split, three cents to the business owner and two cents to the city. Squilla said he expects from $1 million to $1.5 million would flow into the city's general fund each year from the fee, which would cover the cost of enforcement and benefit an antilittering campaign.

His proposal drew a quick endorsement from Mayor Nutter's office.

One member of Council, though, said he was concerned about how the bill would affect those on fixed incomes.

"I understand Councilman Squilla's intent of trying to stop these tumbleweed bags," said Curtis Jones Jr. "They wind up in trees looking like fruit. But what we have to beware is that in some neighborhoods, people are counting their pennies to make ends meet."

David McCorkle, president of the Pennsylvania Food Merchants Association, which represents hundreds of corner grocery stores, said that under the bill, his members would have to train employees and install signs to explain the fee. Businesses would also be susceptible to penalties if they did not comply.

But he said that does not mean they won't support the bill, which would cut down on litter - something McCorkle said business owners and environmentalists alike support.

David Masur, executive director of the citizen-advocacy group PennEnvironment, said he wanted Philadelphia to ban plastic bags but that a fee would be progress.

On Thursday, a Council committee also approved two other bills aimed at reducing litter. One would require landlords of buildings with 10 or more units to provide communal trash cans for tenants. The second would require any business that sells prepackaged or takeout food to have a trash can within 10 feet of the front door.

PAC transparency. On another front, independent groups that make big ad buys during an election season in Philadelphia would have to disclose their financial backers more often if legislation introduced in Council on Thursday is approved.

The bill, introduced by President Darrell L. Clarke, comes a week after the city Board of Ethics urged Council and Nutter to amend the campaign finance code surrounding political action committees.

"These third-party expenditure organizations basically can spend whatever they want to spend, which is within their right," Clarke said. "But there is no disclosure. So we're simply saying that we're asking for you to disclose where your money is coming from."

Super PACs have become a controversial part of this year's mayoral race, more so than in the past, due in large part to the impact of a 2010 Supreme Court ruling that declared spending by independent groups a form of protected speech.

That opened the door for unions and wealthy donors - who are constricted by Philadelphia's campaign contribution limits of $2,900 for individuals and $11,500 for organizations - to give more freely to independent groups.

Those groups, which are not permitted to coordinate with candidates they support, are not required to file finance reports until May 8, 11 days before the primary. The bill introduced Thursday would change that by requiring super PACs to disclose their donors six weeks before an election or primary and every two weeks thereafter.

It would apply to donations of $5,000 or more spent on communications, including TV, print, and radio ads, that reference a candidate in any way.

Clarke said he would like to see the bill take effect by the November elections.

Nutter has said he favors the addition of reporting requirements and the recommendations made last week by the Ethics Board.

Shane Cramer, the board's executive director, said that the group had recommended the reporting trigger be $2,500, but that he was not opposed to $5,000.

"We want the number to be as low as reasonably possible," he said. "You could put in a $100 trigger, but then you're going to capture all sorts of people. You're really just trying to catch the big stuff."