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Maryland moves closer to becoming first state to ban plastic foam food containers

The Maryland State House in Annapolis. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

Maryland could become the first state in the nation to ban plastic foam cups and food containers, under a bill that received final approval in the state Senate on Tuesday and will now be considered in the House.

Cities across the country, including the District, New York and Miami, already forbid foam containers for food and beverages, and environmentalists say it’s a key step toward keeping pollutants out of the environment. Lawmakers in Hawaii are considering a statewide ban.

In Maryland, foam is prohibited in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, the state’s two most populous jurisdictions, and in the cities of Baltimore, Annapolis and Gaithersburg.

“Over half the state is living in an area where foam is banned,” Sen. Cheryl C. Kagan (D-Montgomery), the lead sponsor of the Senate bill, said Tuesday. “It is the wave of the future.”

The 34-to-13 Senate vote came on a busy day in Annapolis, as a House committee approved a bill that would strip the state comptroller’s office of the power to regulate tobacco and alcohol sales, and as legislative leaders vowed to pour $1 billion into improving public education over the next two years.

Support for the foam ban fell largely along partisan lines, with all Democrats backing it except Sen. Katherine A. Klausmeier (Baltimore County), who said she worried about the impact on small businesses. Republican Sens. Edward R. Reilly and Bryan W. Simonaire, both of Anne Arundel County — where a similar ban recently passed but has not taken effect — voted in favor of the measure.

Opponents of the bill said they were not certain it would help the environment as much as proponents claimed.

“It’s an unnecessary burden,” said Sen. Justin D. Ready (R-Carroll). “I just don’t think the juice is worth the squeeze.”

Kagan said the legislation, which would take effect in July 2020, is narrowly focused on plastic foam cups, plates, bowls and other food containers and does not affect foam blocks or peanut packaging.

“Will this overnight change and reduce all litter problems? Of course not,” Kagan said. “But it will take us a significant step forward.”

Gov. Larry Hogan (R) has not taken a position on the legislation, but the Senate vote had enough support to override a potential veto.

In the House, the Economic Matters Committee voted 17 to 3 to remove the ability of Comptroller Peter Franchot’s office to regulate tobacco and alcohol. The legislation, which now heads to the full House, reflects an ugly feud between Democratic legislative leaders and Franchot, who is also a Democrat. It would move alcohol and tobacco regulation to a commission appointed by the governor.

Earlier Tuesday, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) and House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) joined dozens of other Democrats and education officials and vowed to push legislation that would pour about $1 billion into improving public education over the next two years.

The money would help pay for spending recommendations by a landmark commission charged with reshaping the state’s public school system; in January the commission released a report that said less than 40 percent of Maryland high school graduates can read at a 10th-grade level or higher and pass a standardized Algebra 1 exam.

“We can and we must do better,” said William E. Kirwan, who chaired the commission.

The report from the Maryland Commission on Innovation and Excellence in Education called for increased participation in early-childhood education, teacher raises, investments in special education, grants to schools with high poverty rates and improved teacher standards. The report also recommended putting in place stronger accountability measures.

Miller and Busch said Democrats are committed to providing about $1 billion over the next two years, beginning with $325 million in next year’s budget that is part of legislation the General Assembly will consider in the remaining five weeks of the 90-day session.

“People said we have to back down on education, and we said, ‘No, we’re staying committed to the education formula for Kirwan,’ ” Busch said, noting predictions that revenue reductions will require cuts in government spending.

“There are going to be some other projects that are going to be cut, there’s no doubt about it. But this is priority No. 1 for the citizens of the state of Maryland.”

Miller described the bill as the “most important” piece of legislation that the General Assembly will consider this session.

Del. Maggie McIntosh (D-Baltimore City), who chairs the House Appropriations Committee, said the General Assembly last year set aside $200 million to address the commission’s recommendations. In addition to that money, Hogan included $36 million in his fiscal 2020 budget proposal.

Hogan spokeswoman Shareese Churchill said that the governor “is open to additional investments in K-12 education, but strongly believes that any investments must be accompanied by strong accountability requirements.”

McIntosh said the House and Senate budget committees are looking at diverting $65 million in casino revenue funds, which Hogan wants for school construction, to pay for Kirwan proposals.

Miller said the legislature is working with Hogan to also find more money to build and repair schools.

Del. Mary Ann Lisanti (D-Harford), who was censured last week for using a racial slur to describe a Prince George’s County legislative district, was absent from the House of Delegates for a third consecutive day.

She has not been seen by reporters in the State House since her colleagues voted to censure her Thursday.

Advocates have asked Lisanti, who has refused calls for her resignation, to withdraw her name from the Clean Energy Jobs Act, which is scheduled for a committee hearing Friday. It is one of several bills she has sponsored that are pending in the legislature.

“This bill should not be formally or informally considered her bill,” said Mike Tidwell, director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network.

He said Lisanti agreed to withdraw her name, but she has not formally amended the bill. The bill’s second sponsor, Del. Cheryl D. Glenn (D-Baltimore City), could testify on its behalf Friday in Lisanti’s place.

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