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Prince George's bag fee wins key vote in Maryland House

This morning, delegates that represent Prince George's County in the Maryland House of Delegates voted 12 to 9 in support of HB895, which would let let the county enact a 5¢ fee on disposable plastic and paper bags. This was the most significant hurdle, and the bill now has a very high chance of becoming law.

Reusable bag distributed by Montgomery County. Image via Nancy Navarro.

The bill now moves to the Environmental Matters Committee of the House, and then to the floor of the full House. For local bills like this one, those votes are usually a formality, as the current legislature prefers to support the counties' wishes.

The county's senators must also support the bill, but it passed easily last session and no senators are known to have changed their position.

Opponents of the bill—the manufacturers of plastic bags—have paid a fortune to lobby agsint the bill, with thousands of robocalls misleading citizens and flooding delegate offices.

The County Affairs subcommittee was unable to get 4 of 6 votes, as required by the Maryland constitution, to either recommend for or against the bill (or even to agree on "no recommendation"), but after 3 such votes it was eligible to move up to the full delegation anyway.

The bill's supporters withstood the pressure and protected home rule, allowing the Prince George's County Council to now take up the bag fee this fall. The county council voted 8-0, with one abstention, last month to support this measure. (The abstention was Karen Toles, who has been in the news this week for other reasons.)

The council's authority to enact a fee will take effect in October. Should the statewide bag fee bill also pass, the council will have 6 months to pass the county's program in order to be exempt from the statewide system.

The supporting delegates were sponsor Barbara Frush, Ben Barnes, Dereck Davis, Joseline Pena-Melnyk, Doyle Neimann, Michael Summers, James Hubbard, Kris Valder­rama, Anne Healey, Tawanna Gaines, Justin Ross, and Jolene Ivey. Delegate Ivey attended despite being on bereavement leave following the death of her father last week.

Julie Lawson is director of Trash Free Maryland, a nonprofit creating lasting change to prevent trash pollution. She previously worked for the Anacostia Watershed Society, volunteered with the Surfrider Foundation, and was principal at Communication Visual, a design studio for nonprofit organizations. She lives in Takoma DC with her son Owen. 


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Who's voting against it and on what basis? One would think the left would be happy with moving forward for an environmental issue while the right would favor reducing the scale of government by empowering local jurisdictions to have greater autonomy.

by Bossi on Mar 2, 2012 10:52 am • linkreport

On what basis?! A place where I shop wants to give me a bag for shopping there. It's a voluntary transaction between two parties. What is the basis for YOU getting involved? 1% or 2% of the people litter (a guess), but you're penalizing 100% of them. If activists (for various causes) want to impose their beliefs on lifestyle, they'll have reason to control almost every aspect of my life.

by Milton on Mar 2, 2012 11:38 am • linkreport

I'm not supporting or opposing the bag fee; I'm only asking about the basis on permitting a county to enact its own laws.

by Bossi on Mar 2, 2012 11:39 am • linkreport

This is great news! I've seen the marked improvement in the Anacostia since the DC bag fee was imposed. Hopefully, this will curb some of the bags we ge from upstream.

by Hill East Resident on Mar 2, 2012 12:05 pm • linkreport

@Bossi; I don't see how "reducing the scale of government" involves a bag fee.

You could spin it that way -- maybe -- but don't beleive your own spin!

by charlie on Mar 2, 2012 12:17 pm • linkreport

The bag fee question is at the county level. As far as I'm aware, the issue at the state level is a question of whether to permit or prohibit a county from enacting its own law. If the bag fee were to be discussed statewide, then yes: concerns against the bag fee would become applicable at the state-level.

by Bossi on Mar 2, 2012 12:19 pm • linkreport

There's very little that's environmental about this bill or the tax it will impose. When you read it, Julie, you'll see that PG County can use the revenue for any purpose, priorities such as roads, schools, and police. Plastic bags are made from 100% recycled materials and are 100% recyclable themselves. Legislators and the lobbyists who pushed this bill should have considered incentives to recycle and reuse, rather than more taxes. Or another thought -- instead of increasing non-discretionary grocery bills, why not consider taxing discretionary items like coffee cups and fast food containers? That's what I see mostly on the river banks and roadsides. Bags dont litter, people do.

by Anacostia Rower on Mar 2, 2012 12:19 pm • linkreport

why not consider taxing discretionary items like coffee cups and fast food containers? That's what I see mostly on the river banks and roadsides. Bags dont litter, people do.

I think you have a reasonable idea.

by goldfish on Mar 2, 2012 12:26 pm • linkreport

@anacaostia rower - you're repeating talking points from the plastics industry lobby. Do they pay you? The only thing you missed, "it will hurt poor people!", as if poor people are too stupid and lazy to figure out how to re-use a bag.

by Tina on Mar 2, 2012 12:34 pm • linkreport

Amusing how "free disposable bags" has become a William-Wallace-like rallying cry for some people. If 5 cents/bag is too much for you to handle, well... that's sort of the point now, isn't it?

by JustMe on Mar 2, 2012 12:42 pm • linkreport

To reiterate (and to answer @Anacostia Rower), today's vote is only to allow the Prince George's County Council to pursue a bag fee. The County doesn't have this kind of fiscal authority from the state the way Montgomery County does. (Only Montgomery and Baltimore Counties and Baltimore City have that authority. Constitutional charter issue.)

Councilmember Mary Lehman and County Executive Rushern Baker are advocating for the fee at the county level. Their intent is for the revenues to go to environmental protection/watershed restoration just as in Montgomery County and in DC. But those details are too in the weeds for what the Assembly needed to approve, so it hasn't yet been codified (nor have many other details).

Again, the intent of the bill isn't to raise money at all--it's to disincentivize the use of disposable bags.

And as far as all the other trash, bags are just the first step. It's not like I don't see the bottles, chip bags, Styrofoam, and everything else out there too.

by Julie Lawson on Mar 2, 2012 1:07 pm • linkreport

@bossi; states are sovereign in ways county are not. I know a lot fo people can't wrap their heads about it.

@JustMe; hilarious. And true.

by charlie on Mar 2, 2012 1:10 pm • linkreport

Agreed- that's exactly the issue being discussed.

by Bossi on Mar 2, 2012 1:11 pm • linkreport

Milton, What is the basis for YOU getting involved?

Primarily it would be the Constitution, but also the principles of democracy.

Governments have the right to tax transactions. I'm sure the liquor store would love to sell me alcohol without having to put a tax on it, as would people who sell cigarettes. But that isn't the law. In this case, the law would be changed by a democratically-elected body empowered to set such laws.

So.....that't the basis.

by David C on Mar 2, 2012 1:33 pm • linkreport

@David C: minor quibble: Governments have powers and/or authorities to do things, like levy taxes or carry out capital punishment. People have rights -- not governments -- such as free speech or freedom of assembly. Governments do not have these rights.

by goldfish on Mar 2, 2012 1:40 pm • linkreport

Incomplete and potentially biased, this report does not tell the whole story.

The Prince George's County charter requires that virtually all tax and fee increases be put to referendum.

Over the years, greedy career politicians have made several attempts to repeal or modify the charter, but each time the voters have rejected those changes.

Under current law, if county elected officials want to add a bag tax or fee, they are required to get voter approval.

Unfortunately, the vast majority of our council members, who knew the rules when they ran for office, have no respect for those rules, or for the voters, and have elected to pursue an end-run by having the General Assembly override charter provisions that were voted in and reaffirmed by the people of the county.

Whatever the merits of the bag tax proposal, the way it is being handled is anti-democratic and a slap in the face to the voters of Prince George's County.

by D.C. Russell on Mar 2, 2012 2:16 pm • linkreport

Thanks for responding, Julie. Tina's unpleasantness aside, I think there are reasonable approaches to address the litter problem that don't necessarily involve more taxes - especially on groceries, of all things. (I know it's not on groceries, but that's the practical effect for most households.) This IS a tax and its intent is to raise revenue - whether that revenue is used to improve the environment or for other priorities remains to be codified, as you say. (You have more faith in PG County Government than I do, and I'm a resident.) As an aside, I note coincidentally today's Washington Post piece about the $154,000 in revenues raised in the first month of the bag tax in Montgomery County.

by Anacostia Rower on Mar 2, 2012 3:04 pm • linkreport

@Anacostia rower - grocery stores already embed the cost of those bags they give to you "for free" into the cost of all groceries. Its one of their bisggest expenses. So everyone-even those who don't elect to take disposable bags -are subsidizing your use of them. Its a fallacy to claim the fee for taking a bag is a tax on groceries. The fee de-couple the cost of the bags from the cost of graoceries. Please tell me why I should subsidize your use of those bags.

by Tina on Mar 2, 2012 3:38 pm • linkreport

This reads like to be an opponent you must be part of the Big Plastic Bag lobby.

by selxic on Mar 2, 2012 6:09 pm • linkreport

@Tina - You're not subsidizing me, you're subsidizing the retailer. Bags are among the many "costs of doing business, like transportation, distribution, and labor costs, that retailers "embed" in their prices. Do you really think grocery stores will drop their prices because this tax "de-couples the cost of bags" from the price of milk and bananas? Consider for a moment that what this tax is actually "subsidizing" here is the corporate bottom line by eliminating one of their expenses and - for good measure - paying them a penny out of every additional nickel they can now charge consumers for a bag. Please tell me why I should subsidize corporations like Walmart and Safeway.

by Anacostia Rower on Mar 3, 2012 10:55 am • linkreport

I don't get it, why a tax? Why not work with the manufactures to make plastic bags bio-degradable. I guess that this solution is just too common sense for our high operating representatives. I don't understand, aren't our representatives suppose to listen to the people that put them in office, this hold Democracy thing is for the birds....

by Locs on Mar 4, 2012 10:45 pm • linkreport

@Anacostia Rower Do you really think grocery stores will drop their prices because this tax "de-couples the cost of bags.

No. I expect prices to not rise as quickly.

Please tell me why I should subsidize corporations like Walmart and Safeway.

You tell me. In your statement above you assert that embedding the cost of bags into general groceries is not subsidizing those who use those bags [like you] but that

You're not subsidizing me [the bag user], you're subsidizing the retailer.

So why should you subsidize corporations?

by Tina on Mar 4, 2012 11:41 pm • linkreport

@Locs, there are lot of voters who support reducing waste.

Its really not that a big a deal to re-use a bag.

by Tina on Mar 4, 2012 11:44 pm • linkreport

Locs, what do you mean by "work with"? Do you think PG County Councilmembers should put on lab coats and go to work with the chemists to develop biodegradable bags? What does that mean? If creating biodegradable bags is easy or has already been done, then why aren't they already using them? What impact would biodegradable bags have?

Finally, reduce, reuse, recycle isn't just a list of goals, it is prioritized. This law hits on the first goal. Biodegrade isn't even on the list.

by David C on Mar 5, 2012 6:48 am • linkreport

Plastic bags are made from 100% recycled materials and are 100% recyclable themselves.

This has *never* been the issue, and biodegradable bags will not help to solve the problem.

The issue is that plastic bags are lightweight, easily airborne, and inevitably end up "sticking" to the first wet surface that they encounter. In effect, the river becomes a magnet for plastic bags, especially given the amount of runoff that DC and PG County dump directly into the river. They also tend to clog up the sewers.

I don't know if PG's bag "tax" is intended to raise revenue, but DC's bag tax was explicitly designed not to produce meaningful amounts of revenue. The bag tax is designed to subtly guide consumers toward behaviors that are less harmful to society. If successful, fewer people will use plastic bags, and the tax will raise very little revenue. $0.05 per bag is not a financial burden for anyone.

Coffee cups and takeout containers are also absolutely issues that could easily be fixed. Like plastic bags, there are easy solutions to this problem too: Don't use styrofoam, and the containers won't wash into the river, and will eventually either sink or decompose if they are not picked up.

Keeping trash out of the river is not rocket science.

by andrew on Mar 5, 2012 10:20 am • linkreport

I think we all agree clean waterways are a public good. The measure is what's being questioned. Many of us maintain that recycling is a better answer than taxes, that's all. You're right, it's not rocket science. (As an historical aside, the reason the use of plastic bags is so prevalent now is due to efforts by environmentalists to steer consumers away from paper bags in the 1970s. Almost all households did without need for coercive measures.)

by Anacostia Rower on Mar 5, 2012 9:17 pm • linkreport

If you want recycling then some way to make the tax refundable might work (but would require coordination across jurisdictions - actually I'm not sure that's feasible at all) of course it is still costly in energy to make and recycle bags, which is why reduce is better.

I do not recall any effort to steer consumers from paper bags to plastic bags in the 1970s. I think retailers simply preferred to offer plastic, as its cheaper than paper.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Mar 5, 2012 9:44 pm • linkreport

@Anacostia Rower -As an historical aside, the reason the use of plastic bags is so prevalent now is due to efforts by environmentalists to steer consumers away from paper bags in the 1970s.

I challenge this.

The reason stores changed to plastic is because its a fraction of the cost of paper bags.

The rise in use of, and prevalence of plastic bags had everything to do with the economics of the stores and nothing to do with 70s environmental activists pushing plastics use.

by Tina on Mar 6, 2012 11:21 am • linkreport

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