October 22, 2011 | John Allan Peschong

The economy is limping along, and unemployment remains high. State revenue is down nearly $1 billion, which will trigger automatic budget cuts and likely a push for higher taxes. Working families and seniors are feeling the pinch when they visit the grocery store where food prices are up nearly 5 percent over last year — the steepest rise in decades.

I mention these ominous facts because even in light of them, the debate we are having in San Luis Obispo County is whether an obscure board should make the unilateral decision, affecting the entire county, to ban plastic bags.

I believe the answer is a simple no.

The plastic bag ban increases costs for consumers at the worst possible time; creates another government mandate that businesses and citizens alike will have to cope with; and it may be unconstitutional — opening taxpayers to potential lawsuits.

The goal of reducing plastic bags is laudable. I am a big believer in recycling. My own small business was recognized by the California Air Resources Board as a Cool California Small Business Excellence award winner for its efforts to recycle.

However, the San Luis Obispo County plastic bag ban is a deeply flawed ordinance proposed by a government agency that works in the shadows without having to be directly accountable to voters.

Besides the obvious, the plastic bag ban would also:

• Force private businesses to charge customers a minimum of 10 cents per paper bag. In essence this creates a government-mandated charge, which sounds a lot like a tax.

• Criminalize individuals and businesses that provide free bags to customers — a crime that carries up to six months in jail.

• Create a civil liability for businesses that are not in compliance with the bag ban where the government can sue businesses for $1,000 per day for every day on which a violation exists.

These are glaring flaws that defy common sense. Now is not the time for a mandated charge that may be unconstitutional (a lawsuit is pending in Los Angeles County over a similar tax). The idea of sending someone to jail for providing a free paper bag is absurd. Do we really want bag police?

It would be one thing if the county Board of Supervisors or a local city council was proposing a plastic bag ban that raises taxes and criminalizes behavior. Those are local governments that are directly elected by the people. But these new “taxes” are being proposed by a little-known government agency whose board is not elected by the entire county even though that is who they represent.

The Integrated Waste Management Authority is a joint-powers agency that consists of a representative from each of the seven cities, all five supervisors and a representative of the special districts. These 13 board members have the power to enact this law that governs the entire county, without the ability of our local governments to make this decision on behalf of the residents who elected them. Even if a majority of a city’s council members opposed the ban, they couldn’t stop it. That’s wrong.

I believe the IWMA, rather than banning plastic bags, should focus on educating the public. Voluntary recycling programs work. Take aluminum cans, for example. Every year more than 80 billion cans are sold, but according to the EPA, cans account for less than 1 percent of the total U.S. waste stream because of recycling — that’s impressive.

In San Luis Obispo County, we already require stores to have plastic bag recycling bins, which consumers use. With an education campaign, these recycling bins could be used even more. Recycled plastic bags are made into new products such as decking, benches, playground structures and new plastic bags — creating jobs and opportunity.

Furthermore, studies reveal that 90 percent of consumers reuse plastic bags for various household purposes such as picking up pet waste and wastebasket liners. With the plastic bag ban, consumers will be forced to buy heavier garbage bags that contain more plastic, which could increase the amount of plastic in our landfills.

The bag ban is a bad idea, which may not even accomplish the goal of reducing waste. Instead the IWMA should focus on education and the proven formula of the three R’s — reduce, reuse and recycle.