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Maryland legislative roundup: Return of the bag bill

Maryland's 2014 legislative session began last month. For the state's urban areas, one of the biggest issues is whether to spend the glut of transportation funding on more highways or new transit. But there are also two bills seeking to improve bicycling safety, while legislators will again consider a statewide disposable bag fee.

Photo by Michael Hilton on Flickr.

Disposable bag fee returns

Right now, Montgomery County, Baltimore County, and Baltimore City are allowed to impose a fee on stores giving out disposable bags, though only Montgomery currently does. Two new bills from Senator Jamie Raskin (D-Takoma Park), SB 707 and HB 718, would allow the other 21 counties to charge for disposable bags as well.

This isn't the first time Maryland's attempted a statewide bag fee. Raskin has introduced the bill each year for the past four years.

Bike bills would increase passing distance, outline cyclist rights

Lawmakers have also introduced two bills to promote bike safety. Delegate Jon Cardin (D-Pikesville) submitted HB92, which would strengthen Maryland's current 3-foot passing law by increasing the distance drivers need to pass cyclists to 4 feet. There would be some exemptions, including when the road is too narrow for drivers to leave 4 feet of space.

Delegate Al Carr (D-Kensington) introduced the other bill, HB52, which clarifies that the duties of bicyclists are those defined in Maryland law. The bill would give cyclists the same rights and duties as drivers.

It would require bicyclists to watch for other vehicles in public areas, while drivers would have to watch for bicyclists along highways where bikes are allowed. By clarifying the duty of a bicyclist, this bill would protect cyclists who are riding lawfully from additional or hypothetical responsibilities.

Both bills came up in a committee hearing on January 28th and were not received well. Legislators questioned if the new legislation is necessary at this time. The Washington Post quoted Delegate James Malone (D-Baltimore and Howard counties) as saying that cyclists already "don't pay any attention to the rules of the road."

We'll keep you posted on what happens next.

This post was edited to reflect that only Montgomery County has enacted a bag fee, while Baltimore City and County are authorized to.


Barry: "Have courage" and pass the Maryland bag fee

Yesterday morning, DC Councilmembers Marion Barry and Tommy Wells went to Annapolis together to brief the Maryland Legislative Black Caucus on the success of DC's 5¢ disposable bag fee, and ask them to support a similar proposal currently before the Maryland General Assembly.

Photo by the author.

The Community Cleanup and Greening Act (HB1086/SB576) would mirror the District's Anacostia River Cleanup and Protection Act and Montgomery County's bag law, which impose a 5¢ charge on all disposable plastic and paper bags retailers give out.

As in DC and Montgomery County, the bill intends to reduce the number of disposable bags shoppers use, and thus reduce litter and water pollution. Grocery stores report giving out 70% fewer bags since the fees took effect.

Delegate Michael Summers (D-Prince George's), a lead sponsor of the bill, introduced Barry as "everybody's mayor," and caucus members and the audience responded with a standing ovation. Barry went on to explain how Councilmember Tommy Wells had convinced him of the need for the bill by taking Barry out to the banks of the Anacostia River and showing just how much plastic bags pollute the river.

Wells provided context and rationale for the bag fee, and called it the "most successful environmental initiative in DC." He described how discount grocery stores like Aldi and Save-a-Lot have never given bags away for free, as part of their commitment to keeping prices as low as possible.

Barry concluded the briefing by urging his Maryland counterparts to "have courage," noting that the "community benefits are worth far more than five cents." After the meeting, Barry committed to further supporting the effort. "We have to do more to educate them," he said.

While the Anacostia River has seen significant reductions in plastic bag pollution, more than half of the river's watershed is in Prince George's County, which does not yet have a bag fee.

The Community Cleanup and Greening Act was heard by the Senate's Education, Health, and Environmental Affairs Committee on Tuesday. The next public hearing, before the House Environmental Matters Committee, is scheduled for March 8. In addition to Summers, the bill's sponsors are Delegate Mary Washington (D-Baltimore City), Senator Jamie Raskin (D-Montgomery), and Senator Brian Frosh (D-Montgomery).


Montgomery County underestimated plastic bag use

Last week brought a wave of news stories looking back at the first year of the Montgomery County bag fee. Some of them (particularly the Washington Post) concluded the bag fee is ineffective at changing behavior, as shoppers did not appear to be switching from disposable bags to reusable ones as intended.

Photo by katerha on Flickr.

This conclusion is incorrect. And it's all because of one number.

Montgomery County appears to have vastly underestimated disposable bag use before the fee took effect and has not provided information on its methodology in developing pre-bag fee estimates on usage. The County says 82.9 million plastic bags were used annually before the fee. In fact, it was likely closer to 300 million.

According to a 2009 report by the US International Trade Commission, Americans used 102,105,637,000 plastic bags in 2008. That works out to about 335 bags per person. This number is used by jurisdictions all over the country in estimating the impact of bag ordinances.

If the pre-fee bag usage was in fact closer to 300 million, then the post-fee numbers actually indicate significant behavior change, in the neighborhood of a 60-70% reduction, which is similar to what DC has observed since putting its bag fee into effect.

The County also reports that it has collected just over $2 million in revenue through November 2012. Some councilmembers have raised concerns that the revenues are too high. But DC collects $1.8 to 2 million per year from its bag fee, and is only two-thirds the size of Montgomery County (and with fewer businesses subject to the bag fee). Thus Montgomery's revenue numbers seem to be on track.

In fact, Safeway spokesman Craig Muckle says in the Capital Gazette, "In Montgomery County, Safeway saw a 70 percent drop in plastic bag use at the checkouts from 2011 to 2012. There could be other factors, but I am pretty sure the bag fee has a lot to do with it. We saw similar results from the bag fee in the District."

Likewise, stream protection organizations are seeing fewer bags in cleanups of their waterways. These results are even being reported by Montgomery County Department of Parks and the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission.

Bob Hoyt, Director of the Montgomery County Department of Environmental Protection, issued this statement:

Montgomery County is committed to reducing litter and is committed to the County's Bag Law as one of the primary ways of accomplishing this goal. I believe from my own observations when I am shopping, from anecdotal information from others, reports from environmental groups engaged in litter clean ups and reports from retailers about reduced bag use that the Law is working. The Bag Law is changing consumer behavior much in the same way recycling did 20 years ago. We are committed to gathering the appropriate data but are convinced that it will confirm the positive impact the Law is having on Montgomery County's environment.

Montgomery County is a leader for Maryland and has been effective at reducing plastic litter through its disposable bag fee. It's a shame that one bad number is calling into question all that good work.


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.


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 billthe manufacturers of plastic bagshave 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.


It's time for a statewide bag fee in Maryland

DC's 5¢ bag fee is now 2 years old, and it has unquestionably achieved its goals. Shoppers have overwhelmingly switched to using reusable bags to carry their purchases, and fewer plastic bags are polluting the Anacostia River. But we all live downstream of somewhere, and bags and other trash continue to come in from Maryland and tarnish DC's waters.

Photo from Trash Free Anacostia.

Montgomery County enacted its own bag fee last year, and Prince George's County wants to follow suit but needs state permission. Many in both counties recog­nize that disposable bags are outdated and need to be phased out to help our communities combat litter.

However, trash doesn't know political boundaries. It is now time for Maryland to step up and pass a state­wide bag fee. The General Assembly has considered the proposal twice before without success, but many good bills take a few tries before they pass.

While the political climate remains challenging, the tide is turning. Chestertown, on the Eastern Shore, banned plastic bags outright. Howard County and Baltimore City have also expressed interest in a bag fee.

As these ordinances vary from county to county, stores with multiple locations will have more difficulty complying with all the laws, and consumers will need to remember which jurisdiction they are shopping in. A consistent statewide approach will do the most to reduce litter and be better for both retailers and shoppers.

The Community Cleanup and Greening Act, sponsored this year by Senator Brian Frosh (District 16-Montgomery County) and Delegate Mary Washington (District 43-Baltimore City), will copy the Montgomery County law and enact a 5¢ fee on plastic and paper checkout bags at all stores throughout the state.

Retailers will keep 1¢ of the fee. The Department of Human Resources will use fee funds to purchase and distribute free reusable bags to all low-income residents via community service centers and faith and social service institutions. The state will split the remaining proceeds between the counties, to pay for water quality improvement projects, and the Chesapeake Bay Trust, which will give out grants to restore the environment.

Baltimore, in particular, will benefit from a serious approach to litter reduction. As with the Anacostia River, the EPA has declared the Baltimore Harbor "impaired" by trash under the Clean Water Act, and the city faces steep fines for violations. The city currently spends upwards of $10 million every year to clean up litter; taxpayers are already paying a lot, and that burden will only continue to increase.

"Litter brings down the quality of life for residents," said Halle Van der Gaag, Executive Director of Blue Water Baltimore. "It is not only visually ugly but contaminates our waterways. Preventing it in the first place is more sustainable in the long-term."

The Senate's Education, Health, and Environmental Affairs Committee is holding a public hearing on SB511 on Tuesday at 1 pm; the House's Economic Matters Committee will hear HB1247 on Wednesday, March 14.

To show your support for the measure, send an email or find your representatives' phone numbers through the Surfrider Foundation. You can also participate in a Lobby Night next Monday, March 5, to go to Annapolis and meet with your legislators in person. RSVP by visiting

For more information about bag fees and the campaign supporting this legislation, visit the Trash Free Maryland Alliance.


Prince George's bag fee not dead, but needs your help

On Wednesday, a preliminary vote on the Prince George's County disposable bag fee failed to move the measure forward. The Washington Post's article explained many of the dynamics, but the headline suggested the bill was dead. It's not, but it needs residents' help to pass.

Image from Trash Free Anacostia.

Unlike in Montgomery County, where a 5¢ fee began last month on plastic and paper shopping bags much like the one in DC, Prince George's County (and almost all other Maryland jurisdictions) needs permission from the General Assembly to enact certain taxes and fees. Bill PG 402-12, sponsored by Senator Paul Pinsky (D-District 22) and Delegate Barbara Frush (D-District 21), would give the county that authority for a bag fee.

"Local bills" like this one, which apply just to a single county, go through a different and much more complicated process than regular bills. A small committee of the county's legislative delegation, the County Affairs Committee, first discusses the bill, which happened Wednesday.

This committee voted 3-2 in support. Unfortunately, a bill needs 4 votes to earn a "favorable" rating from the committeeand that is how it "lost." But the committee can reconsider the bill if it wants, or the full county delegation of 24 delegates can take up the bill without a favorable report from the committee. If it's going to move forward any further, though, residents of Prince George's County need to contact their delegates now.

The plastics industry is paying for hundreds of robocalls, giving legislators the impression that there is strong public opposition. Supportive county residents and workers need to call and email and have their voices heard.

All Prince George's delegates are important, but one particularly important vote is Delegate Veronica Turner (District 26). She is a member of the County Affairs Committee, but was absent the day of the vote.

As DC has seen over the last 2 years, making the cost of single-use bags transparent by charging a nickel for them is a powerful motivator to switch to reusable bags. Three-quarters of DC residents say they have reduced their use of plastic bags, and businesses large and small have saved thousands of dollars by not having to buy as many bags.

Volunteers are picking up fewer bags during river cleanups, and grant money is flowing to green businesses and nonprofit organizations (including mine) that work to restore the Anacostia River, creating jobs. Low-income residents have received thousands of free reusable bags.

DC Councilmember Tommy Wells authored the bag fee as a step toward removing trash from the Anacostia River. But 50% of the river's watershed is in Prince George's County, making county the most important piece of the restoration puzzle.

Prince George's County spends $2.5 million each year picking up litter, and with new limits on trash pollution in the Anacostia River, the public expense is only going to go up. Shoppers pay more for food and other products because retailers add the cost of those "free" bags to pricesas much as $37.50 per year for the average shopper. There is no such thing as a free bag.

Finally, it's a matter of home rule. The County Council voted 8-0, with one abstention, to endorse PG 402-12. County Executive Rushern Baker has taken this campaign on as a personal project. If county leaders want to proactively address an environmental problem, why should the General Assembly interfere?

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