A bill before the Maryland General Assembly would impose the nation's first statewide tax on disposable plastic and paper bags, ostensibly to protect the environment. However, after taxing practically everything else and desperate for new revenue, this is just another way for Maryland lawmakers to obtain an extra $7.3 million to finance their chronic overspending, as experience with the bag tax at the local level has made increasingly clear.
The District was the first major city to implement a bag tax in 2010. City officials initially claimed that the use of disposable bags in D.C. plunged from 270 million to 55 million during the first year the bag tax was implemented and credited it for a dramatic decrease in the amount of debris that wound up in the 8.7-mile Anacostia River.
However, an official with the D.C. Department of the Environment later acknowledged that the city has no idea exactly how many plastic and paper bags were used before the 5-cent bag tax went into effect. DOE Stormwater Administrator Jeffrey Seltzer admitted to the Washington Post that "getting precise empirical data hasn't been done." The city has only now commissioned a study -- after the fact -- to determine the real effect of the tax, so all claims of environmental benefits seem unwarranted so far.
The only thing D.C. officials know for sure is that the tax has taken about $2 million a year -- half the projected amount -- from the pocketbooks of District shoppers who decide that a nickel is an acceptable price to pay to have something with which to carry their purchases.
Same thing in Montgomery County, which last year imposed its own 5-cent bag tax on paper and plastic sacks. Like their counterparts in the District, county officials predicted a 60 percent decline in usage. However, Meo Curtis, a stormwater permit manager who oversees the county's bag tax program, also admitted that Montgomery County has no idea exactly how many disposable bags were being used countywide before the tax went into effect. All they know for sure is that the tax generated $2.3 million last year, again about half of initial projections. (If the state bag tax goes into effect, Montgomery shoppers will have to pay a dime each for their bags.)
If the bag tax was really about protecting the environment, one might have expected D.C. and Montgomery County officials to keep track of its impact. Instead, they never even bothered to collect the "precise empirical data" to document its before-and-after effect. And they didn't bother because the tax is really about raising revenue. So is the latest attempt to expand the bag tax statewide in Maryland.