In Maryland, a renewed chance for a bag tax

By Editorial
Tuesday, March 15, 2011; 8:05 PM

MARYLAND'S BID to impose a nickel fee on paper and plastic bags fell victim last year to election-year jitters. Lawmakers didn't want to go near anything that had a whiff of a tax increase. But sponsors of a bag tax, buoyed by the success of the District's effort and by important support from Gov. Martin O'Malley (D), are cautiously optimistic about their chances of winning approval in the General Assembly this year.

Both the House and Senate have scheduled committee votes this week on measures (HB 1034 and SB 602) to require retail stores to charge a five-cent fee on disposable paper and plastic bags. Revenue would go to the Chesapeake Bay Trust to help clean streams and beautify the bay. But collecting taxes isn't the aim of the measure; getting people to stop using the bags that litter local streets and waterways is the goal. And, as Washington's experience shows, a small fee does encourage people to change their habits.

"The success in D.C. has turned everyone's head," said Sen. Jamie B. Raskin (D-Montgomery), who has joined with Del. Alfred C. Carr Jr. (D-Montgomery) to push the Clean the Streams and Beautify the Bay Act of 2011. The District's law went into effect in 2010 and, despite initial worries, was generally well received by consumers and the business community. The first year saw an 80 percent reduction of disposable bags, from 270 million to 55 million. Retailers, which have to spend less on bags and which receive a portion of the revenues, reported either positive or no effect on their businesses. And organizations devoted to the cleanup of the Anacostia River say they have noticed a difference in litter making its way to the waterway. Opposition to the bill has been muted, coming mainly from bag manufacturers.

Mr. O'Malley, whose administration opposed the bill last year, now embraces it and said he will sign it if given the chance. Also boosting the bill's prospects is critical support from Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Clinton). No doubt the fact that Prince George's and Montgomery counties have signaled interest in enacting their own measures is helping state lawmakers to see the handwriting on the wall.

© 2011 The Washington Post Company