Bag fee dead in Prince George’s

March 25, 2012

An attempt to give Prince George’s County lawmakers the authority to impose a 5-cent fee on disposable shopping bags has died in Annapolis.

The bill, backed by County Executive Rushern L. Baker III (D), the Prince George’s County Council and a majority of the county’s delegates and senators, fell one vote short of a majority Saturday in the House Environmental Matters Committee.

“It is dead,” said committee member Doyle L. Niemann (D-Prince George’s), who had backed the measure.

The measure would have given the county the authority to impose the fee, with the approval of the council and the executive.

Many Prince George’s officials are skittish about being associated with any fee or tax increase. The county has operated since 1978 under a voter-imposed property tax cap known as the Tax Reform Initiative by Marylanders (TRIM), which requires voter approval or authorization from the General Assembly to override it.

The General Assembly this year approved a measure that would allow a TRIM override if the money is needed for public education, a move that riled some county activists and officials who called it a backdoor attempt to kill TRIM without putting it before the voters.

Saturday’s committee action on the bag fee marked a rare occasion in which a local bill was allowed to die in the General Assembly. Usually, if local lawmakers support a measure affecting their jurisdiction only, it gets the support of colleagues from other jurisdictions in a practice known as “local courtesy.”

The county’s Senate delegation signaled its support for the bag fee, but the county’s House delegation was closely divided on the measure — approving it on a 12 to 9 vote on March 2.

The delegation’s chairman, Del. ­Melony G. Griffith (D), was among the opponents. Griffith said she had not been persuaded that the measure would do enough to help the environment, and was worried about adding another tax or fee to county residents, who already pay among the highest local taxes in the region.

“Is this the solution for the environmental problem that has been identified?” she said.

Prince George’s council member Mary A. Lehman (D-Laurel) and several environmental groups pushed for the measure, but it faced opposition from the plastic bag industry and the U.S. Black Chamber of Commerce, which said it might harm low-income residents. Opponents robocalled lawmakers and targeted Prince George’s residents with radio advertisements, questioning the cost of the fee and whether it would help consumers or the environment.

Scott Peterson, a spokesman for Baker, said in an e-mail that the administration was “disappointed” that the bill failed. The fee, he said, would have helped the county comply with federal environmental regulations.

“We will continue to work on ways to address our federal environmental cleanup requirements,” Peterson said. “We also will remain vigilant in maintaining clean communities by removing plastic litter and debris from our waterways.”

In the Washington area, Montgomery County and the District have 5-cent bag taxes. D.C. officials say the fee has reduced the use of disposable bags and has helped reduce trash. Montgomery’s law took effect in January.

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