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.
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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