Maryland legislators need to get over their anxiety about a bag tax

Wednesday, March 17, 2010; A20

IT'S AN election year in Maryland, so there is a certain nervousness about a measure being debated in the General Assembly to assess a five-cent fee on disposable plastic and paper bags. The accepted wisdom is: Don't raise taxes if you want to get reelected. Such thinking misunderstands the philosophy behind the bag bill and underestimates the public's desire to do something for the environment. Maryland lawmakers need only look across the border to the District to see why they should enact this bill.

Maryland House and Senate committees last week held hearings on legislation that mimics a D.C. law that went into effect this year to discourage the use of disposable bags by imposing a small fee. The Maryland legislation, HB351, sponsored by Del. Alfred C. Carr Jr. (D-Montgomery), and SB462, sponsored by Sen. Jamie B. Raskin (D-Montgomery), would require retail establishments to charge for disposable carryout bags. Proceeds would be divided between the businesses and a fund to clean up the Chesapeake Bay. The real aim, though, is not to make money but to change behavior by getting people to use fewer bags.

Judging by early experience in the District and other places with similar legislation, such a measure is effective, with many consumers making the switch to reusable bags. D.C. Council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) told Maryland committee members that large stores in the city have reported a 50 percent drop in plastic bag use. He related the story of one owner, originally opposed to the initiative, who reported an 80 to 90 percent drop in bag usage plus significant reductions in her overhead costs. That underscores the fact that the bags are not free -- there's a cost to consumers, to businesses and to governments that have to clean up the mess in waterways and neighborhoods.

Groups supporting the Maryland bill outnumber opponents -- mainly bag manufacturers. Large grocery stores, along with the state Chamber of Commerce, have taken no position. Unfortunately, the Maryland Department of the Environment cast its lot with the opponents, arguing unconvincingly that while it supports the bill's goals, the measure would be difficult to implement. No doubt the department is taking its cue from Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) who, while not taking a position, has shown no enthusiasm for the measure. We hope he changes his mind. If he doesn't, he should have the honesty to temper any reelection campaign claims to being a friend of the Chesapeake Bay.

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