Montgomery bag tax would be partially rolled back under new proposal

Montgomery’s nickel tax on disposable bags would be rolled back to cover only stores where food is sold under a bill to be introduced Tuesday by three County Council members.

The five-cent excise tax on plastic and paper bags, passed by the council in May 2011, covers virtually every retail business in the county. It was designed to discourage the use of disposable bags that clog local waterways. Council members Roger Berliner (D-Potomac-Bethesda), Nancy Floreen (D-At Large) and Craig Rice (D-Upcounty) say that the fee has been successful in decreasing bag use in supermarkets. But they argue that it creates inconvenience — and perhaps resentment — in non-food establishments where customers are unaccustomed to bringing reusable bags.

The bill would impose the tax only on businesses where food represents more than 2 percent of gross sales. It would, however, continue to cover non-food items sold in those stores. The measure would repeal the tax on plastic food take-out bags.

A public hearing on the bill is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. June 18. County figures suggest that consumption of disposable bags increased in 2012, its first full year in effect, from 4.1 million in January 2012 to 6.1 million in December. But the number of retailers collecting the tax also increased over the course of the year, from 548 to 1,011. Most of the total revenue generated by the bag fee, just over $2.3 million, goes to funding water quality and stormwater control programs.

Environmental groups that run trash pickup programs along county streams and tributaries report that the tax has had a demonstrable impact, decreasing the number of disposable bags recovered. In a report last month, council staff recommended against any change in the tax for at least the rest of 2013 to see what happens to trends in bag sales.

Bill Turque, who covers Montgomery County government and politics, has spent more than thirty years as a reporter and editor for The Washington Post, Newsweek, the Dallas Times Herald and The Kansas City Star.

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