Greater Greater Washington

What killed the Prince George's County bag bill?

On Saturday, the Environmental Matters committee of the Maryland House of Delegates voted down a measure that would have let Prince George's County create a 5¢ bag fee, similar to those in Montgomery and DC.


Oxon Run. Photo from the Alice Ferguson Foundation.

Just a couple of weeks ago, the bill narrowly passed a vote by the county delegation, and advocates thought they had cleared the biggest hurdle. Local bills with support from the delegation usually sail through the rest of the way as a courtesy. It was case of counting our chickens before they hatched, perhaps, but the road this bill took was far from typical.

Saturday's vote was 12 to 11 in support but, with 24 members on the committee, we needed 13 yeas to move forward. A quick look at the vote count shows that, surprisingly, Montgomery County Delegate Jim Gilchrist, a friend of the environment, voted no.

According to other members of the committee, Gilchrist incorrectly thought the measure had failed in the delegation vote, so he thought he was supporting the wishes of the county by voting against it.

However, we also know that committee chairwoman Maggie McIntosh had concerns about the bill's ability to pass on the floor of the House. THe House has considered a tremendous number of new taxes and fees this session, and just last week approved raising income taxes.

McIntosh feared "fee fatigue" would doom the bill even though it would only indirectly create a new fee. McIntosh voted last in the committee vote, and there is no guarantee that she would have voted yea if hers had been the 13th and deciding vote.

Along with Councilmember Mary Lehman, the bill's champion on the Council, County Executive Rushern Baker personally worked hard to support the bill. Just Friday he released a press release reaffirming the need for the bill. As Baker is himself a former delegate, the committee warmly received his testimony during last week's hearing and he regularly reached out to leadership to check the bill's status and reinforce it as an executive priority.

The outcome likely would have been different had the delegation vote not been so close. It passed with the minimum 12 votes, with 9 opposed (two were absent). As DC experienced during its attempt to pass a container deposit in the 1980s, the industry opposition successfully couched the issue in racial and socioeconomic terms. They specifically appealed to central and south county residents in their tactics, relying on robocalls to mislead constituents and flood delegate offices with comments, and running ads on predominantly African-American radio stations and in newspapers.

These tactics prompted Delegate Veronica Turner, a co-sponsor of the statewide version of the bag fee, to switch positions, because she believed her constituents were vehemently opposed.

In response, advocates supporting the bill canvassed grocery store parking lots in Turner's district in Oxon Hill, and collected more than 300 signatures over a couple of weekends. They reported that shoppers were extremely supportive of the proposal once they learned that it was intended to reduce litter and create a fund for environmental restoration.

Turner was reportedly open to reversing her position, but she then fell ill and was hospitalized, and has since missed the rest of the legislative session. Her absence prevented a delegation subcommittee from giving the bill a favorable report, leading to the impression that the bill had died in February. (Perhaps this is the vote Gilchrist was remembering.)

Delegate Barbara Frush, who introduced the bill in the House, has faith that the county will eventually have a bag fee. The delegation leadership will change next year as part of the state's redistricting, potentially putting a stronger ally in the chairmanship.

In addition, the county has extensive environmental obligations, including reducing trash in the Anacostia River and dramatically improving stormwater management, and a bag fee would address both. While the county cannot enact a fee this year, other options are still on the table. The problems aren't going to go away on their own.

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Julie Lawson is director of the Trash Free Maryland Alliance, a network of organizations working to reduce trash pollution through a common policy agenda. 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. 

Comments

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so, reading between the lines, advocates failed to count their votes and whip up support.

Amateur hour in Annapolis.

by charlie on Mar 27, 2012 12:05 pm • linkreport

Excellent overview. We were not prepared for the extent to which the chemical industry would go to oppose any reduction to their massive expansion of throw away plastic bags. They went deep into their pockets to provoke opposition.

The opposition of Del. Marvin Holmes (from the Mitchellville, Bowie area south of Rt. 50) should not be overlooked. Holmes is the only county member on environmental matters committee who opposed the bill. His vote killed the bill. As an engineer he knows the issues and has no excuse to oppose it. Check his donations from the chemical industry and those who are doing its bidding in coming years.

by Dan on Mar 27, 2012 3:03 pm • linkreport

Actually Charlie, we were working the bill daily and as of Friday we were pretty sure that the committee chair was not going to bring the bill for a vote at all. Instead the bill was slipped into Saturday's marathon session (possibly a tactical decision in the hopes it would get lost in the shuffle).

Hopefully we can count on your expertise next year.

by Brent B on Mar 27, 2012 3:16 pm • linkreport

Thanks for this Julie and comment posters,
Do you know any details about when the bill was added to the Saturday session? I don't know how deep people want to (or have time to) look but the pattern of Delegate Holmes (Bowie) wrecking good environmental legislation in the Environmental Matters Committee has familiar history for people who care about clean water.

And for Chair McIntosh, is there no obligation to mention the County Delegation position to a group of 24 people from around the state? This is very disappointing.

by Cary on Mar 27, 2012 4:56 pm • linkreport

Sad, but just a microcosm of the national issues we will face this Fall.

by Jim C on Mar 27, 2012 4:58 pm • linkreport

Julie deserves a ton of credit for moving the ball as far as she did. Lobbying is not a science - a group can do everything right and something completely unrelated can derail it. And Charlie - when a grassroots effort with no "hired gun" lobbyist comes up 1 vote short when going up against a well-funded chemical industry that is so unethical it is willing to mislead minorities with computer-genereated phone calls - I'd say that's not "amateur hour" at all. It's a bit closer to Rocky taking Apollo Creed to a 16 round split decision. Great Job Julie, Dana, Brent and all the other people who worked so hard on this.

by Mike B on Mar 28, 2012 9:33 am • linkreport

Ah, yes. I forget the "chemical industy" which makes, well, I don't know...$100M a year in disposable bags?

100 Billion bags a year, at a penny a bag, is around a billion dollar market. What the margin on that -- 10% 20%? 5%?

The misleading I smell is enviornmental advocating exaggerating for their cause.

(just for comparsion, dupont made, in profit, around a billion dollar last year).

And yes, not counting your votes and making sure your supporters will vote for you -- that is amateur hour. Better luck next year.

by charlie on Mar 28, 2012 9:56 am • linkreport

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