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Montgomery County Council members: Bag tax might be excessive

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Local,Maryland,Kate Jacobson

Montgomery County shoppers pony up 5 cents for each bag they use when buying cereal at Safeway, a new blouse at Nordstrom or fried chicken at Popeye's.

But County Council members are concerned that charging for the latter two might be excessive, despite the insistence of Department of Environmental Protection Director Bob Hoyt that eliminating the bag tax for restaurants and retailers would derail the county's efforts to clean up streams.

Hoyt argued it's too soon to tell how effective the 5 cent bag tax has been since it was implemented in January 2012. He called the bag tax -- which collects money on bags to clean up rivers and streams -- one of "the most successful programs" the department has ever had, based on anecdotal evidence and preliminary data. He said he's had no complaints about the program.

"I gotta tell you -- I do get a lot of pushback from people," Councilman Roger Berliner, D-Bethesda, fired back at Hoyt, while a few other council members on the Transportation, Infrastructure, Energy and Environment Committee chimed in about the tax being the "single most" source of complaints that come into council offices.

But those complaints will dwindle as more shoppers become accustomed to always using reusable bags in every situation, Hoyt argued, and that takes time. Council members seemed dubious: Do such people exist?

"Why would we say that there's no way somebody walks into Nordstrom to buy perfume and wouldn't have that small reusable bag? I will bring in [to the council] people who have come to me and say, 'I have done this,' " Hoyt said.

He went a step further, adding that he brings his bags into retailers like Nordstrom, saying he swings his bag when he walks into the store to show others that he, in fact, brings a reusable bag.

After the laughter subsided, other council members started sharing anecdotes about why they wouldn't bring a reusable bag into a clothing or jewelry store.

Councilman Craig Rice, D-Germantown, said the tax can lead to racial profiling and stigmatization of black shoppers, which he has experienced. Taking clothes out of a store without a store-branded bag might cause security guards or other shoppers to think certain people look like thieves instead of paying customers.

"Especially as a black man, unfortunately, in times like this, some things haven't changed," he said. "We are further giving the ability for these things to happen."

A receipt and bag signify the shopper has made a legitimate purchase in a clothing store, Rice said,

and for customers of color that could make the difference in whether they're treated properly.

"We again have some tweaking to do," Rice said.

kjacobson@washingtonexaminer.com

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