The Montgomery County Council approved a 5-cent bag tax Tuesday that will go into effect Jan. 1, a move environmentalists hope will revive a stalled effort to pass a similar tax statewide.
Montgomery politicians were inspired in part by the District’s bag tax, but they took the idea further by including nearly all retail establishments, not just those that sell food.
The tax will apply to paper and plastic bags at thousands of merchants. Among the few exceptions are paper bags from restaurants and pharmacy bags holding prescription drugs.
Officials say the tax will raise about $1 million a year, some of which will fund free reusable bags for the poor and elderly. The money will also help fund cleanups of streams and rivers, although backers expect bag use — and tax receipts — to drop quickly.
“I consider this to be a nudge, not a nuisance. This nudge has profound effects on our consciousness,” said council member Roger Berliner (D-Bethesda-Potomac), who cast one of the eight votes for the measure.
Reducing the number of plastic bags that end up clogging waterways is the principal aim of the new tax. By taxing paper bags as well, officials are trying to keep shoppers from simply choosing paper instead.
Nancy Floreen (D-At Large), the lone dissenter, called the tax a costly distraction when officials should be focused on maintaining basic services in a tough budget climate. “It’s just another regressive tax that creates its own set of administrative costs.. . . We are adding to the cost borne by our most vulnerable populations,” Floreen said.
The District’s bag tax, which went into effect in January 2010, is generally viewed as an environmental success, if not necessarily a fiscal one. Use of plastic bags dropped so quickly and so greatly that the revenue from the tax was far lower than projected, city officials said.
In Virginia, local taxes have to be authorized by the General Assembly. So Arlington County, one of the jurisdictions where there is strong support for a bag tax, has had to turn to Richmond. But in a state averse to taxes, this year’s proposal from Arlington, like the ones before it, went nowhere.
Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) said he first thought of the idea several years ago but waited for action on the state level. When he concluded that those efforts were stuck, he proposed the local tax in March.
“Once they’ve seen that it is in place, once they’ve seen it working, then it may become a basis for a more positive action” in the General Assembly, Leggett said.
That view was shared by Sen. Jamie B. Raskin, who, along with Del. Alfred C. Carr Jr., a fellow Montgomery Democrat, pushed statewide bag tax proposals.
“A lot of state laws get passed when we prove that something works at the local level,” Raskin said, adding that momentum fell apart under industry pressure in Annapolis.
“We ran into a big lobbying [push] in the last two weeks of the session. We had built up big support, including from the president of the Senate,” Raskin said. “The chemical industry invested a lot of money at the end of the session to stop it. . . . It worked. The environmental forces will be back next year, and the momentum is on our side.”
But Carr said he’s not sure whether Montgomery’s action “will help or hurt” in rural, conservative areas of the state, where legislators balked at passing “anything that looks or smells like a tax.”
Fear of a backlash cost the bill the support of Republicans — and some Democrats, Carr said. “You also had some Democrats buying into the industry’s argument that this would be a tax and not good for families,” Carr said. “I don’t think they give a whole lot of heed to what goes on in Montgomery County anyway for something like that.”
Carr said anti-bag-tax ads on Baltimore radio stations sapped support in the state’s biggest urban area.
Mark Daniels, the vice president in charge of environmental policy for bagmaker Hilex Poly, said Montgomery officials “obviously were not informed with regard to the environmental attributes of plastic bags.”
His company uses recycled bags to make many of their new ones, he said, and people reuse bags to carry their lunches, pick up after dogs or to line their bathroom trash cans.
“The legislators in Maryland understood the facts a lot more than the folks” in Montgomery, Daniels said.
In the District, the tax has been highly effective, said D.C. Council member Tommy Wells, who consulted with Montgomery officials and testified for the county’s tax. City officials say they have been told by major supermarkets that bag use is down by more than 60 percent.
Montgomery, Wells (D-Ward 6) said in a statement, “took a smart approach, built the political will, and worked with a coalition of businesses and environmental leaders to achieve today’s success.”
Walking in Rockville with a plastic bag, Gina Parr, a marketing director, said she’s following her children’s lead and trying to be greener. But, she said, “we have enough taxes. We’re overtaxed here. It’s nickel-and-diming.”
“I think people can be responsible. . . . My kids are more environmentally aware. I’m learning, too,” she said. Still, “my husband hasn’t had a raise in two years. . . . We haven’t gotten raises. Yet they keep wanting more.”
But Julia Lee, who does marketing for a nonprofit group and lives in Silver Spring, said she supports the tax and is partial to reusables. “I always use my little bags,” she said. “It’s better for the environment. It does put the consumer to work a little bit. . . . But I think, in the end, that’s where everybody’s moving anyway.”