Leggett proposes broad 5-cent bag tax in Montgomery

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 13, 2011; 7:07 PM

A year after the District began collecting its nickel-a-bag tax in grocery stores and other places that sell food, officials in Montgomery County are trying to up the ante.

County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) proposed a 5-cent bag tax Monday that would apply to nearly all retail establishments, from hardware stores to wig shops. Tens of thousands of merchants would be covered.

"We sort of learned from their experience," said Leggett, who called the District's pathbreaking effort "a little narrow."

Some in the District agree.

"The Montgomery County bill is kind of 2.0. It's an improvement over ours," said D.C. Council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6), who sponsored the city's bill and has met with officials crafting Montgomery's effort. "We did not know how much opposition we were going to have to face. It was strategic, rather than for any environmental or tax reason or even a business reason."

Wells said he will seek to expand the District law, although he has not decided when. "It has gone very well, so I'm looking at just going ahead and including all stores," Wells said.

Although bag-tax efforts have been defeated elsewhere in the country and some opposed the effort in the District, Montgomery officials said they are confident that the idea of a bag tax will resonate in a community where environmental concerns run deep in the political culture.

"We support the concept," said Georgette "Gigi" Godwin, president and chief executive of the Montgomery County Chamber of Commerce. Although the proposal "would be one more thing" for business owners to deal with, "I think everyone wants to reduce the volume of waste," Godwin said.

The chamber has also backed a similar statewide effort in Annapolis as long as the money raised in Montgomery stays there.

There has been some opposition in Montgomery, where tax increases have been a frequent occurrence in recent years. Last year, the county boosted taxes on energy and cellphone bills, for example. After Leggett released the legislation Monday, one commenter left this message on the county's Facebook page: "What a joke. Tax Tax Tax." Added another: "So you're using tax policy to 'encourage' social policies deemed most appropriate by you? Let me guess - next up, McDonald's and Starbucks taxes to 'encourage' healthy living?"

Montgomery's proposal would cover "any supermarket, convenience store, shop, service station, restaurant or any other sales outlet where a customer purchases goods," according to the legislation language released Monday. The proposed law would take effect in January and would need to be passed by the County Council.

Officials are estimating $1.5 million in revenue the first year, the bulk of which would go toward water protection. Store owners would sign on to a new Web site that would be set up to collect the tax, officials said.

Leggett, backed by representatives of environmental groups, said that littered bags are a pervasive nuisance and that carrying reusable bags is a practical solution that has had good results in the District.

"It's a menace in Montgomery County," Leggett said. And the tax meant to cut deeply into bag use is easy to dodge, he added: "All you have to do is get a bag and take it in." Leggett said he expects within a year or so that "the bottom will fall out of this" and the county will be collecting very little money, which will be a sign that things are working as planned.

Wells said the number of disposable plastic bags found in the Anacostia River "has plummeted by more than 60 percent. It accomplished exactly what it set out to do." That has been true in stores as well, he said. "We have had a correlating drop of more than 60 percent of the amount of disposable bags used in D.C.," he added.

District officials say the tax raised $2.3 million in the first year, from February 2010 through January, and the revenue is used by the Department of the Environment.

The Montgomery law would cover paper and plastic bags provided to carry purchases. Exceptions would include a bag from a pharmacy for prescription drugs; newspaper, garbage or pet waste bags; bags at farmers markets; and a paper bag for carrying prepared food from a restaurant, according to the legislation.


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