With Prince George's County bag tax history, Rushern Baker pushes statewide fee

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Local,DC,Maryland,Matt Connolly,Taxes,Montgomery County,Prince Georges County

Prince George's County Executive Rushern Baker is pushing a statewide bag tax a year after the county's bid to implement one died in Annapolis.

The bill, proposed by 34 state delegates, would tack on a 5-cent fee to every disposable bag Maryland consumers get at the store. Baker has long supported the initiative as an environmental and cost-saving measure.

"In Prince George's County, we spend hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars a year cleaning up plastic bags," he said in a statement, adding that littered bags are "unhealthy for both wildlife and humans."

The county spends $900,000 picking up litter that includes plastic bags, according to Baker. The bags can also get caught in the county recycling facility's sorting equipment -- workers there spend an average of 4 hours per day pulling bags and other objects from the equipment, costing the county $110,000 a year, Baker said.

Critics have called the tax an unfair burden on low-income residents. County Councilwoman Karen Toles, D-Suitland, was the lone council member who didn't support the tax last year. She said that her opinion hasn't changed now that the legislation's scope is statewide.

"I just think it's an unnecessary burden, especially with the possible gas tax and sales tax coming through for the state," she said. "I just don't think it's a good idea for the people that we represent."

Toles said she would rather see customers who bring in their own bags get 5 cents off the price of their purchases.

"I don't believe in taxing people as a way to change their behavior," she said. "How about we incentivize people and let them save money instead of costing them money?"

Last year, a bill limited to Prince George's looked likely to pass the General Assembly. Thanks to a provision in its charter, the county does not have its own taxing authority and needs approval from Annapolis to impose such fees. But the bill ended up dying in committee, despite the support of a majority of the county House delegation.

Had it passed, Prince George's would have joined Montgomery County and the District in instituting a nickel tax on disposable bags. Montgomery, which under its charter can pass tax increases without General Assembly approval, saw its fee go into effect in 2012, while D.C.'s began in 2010.

David Harrington, president and CEO of the Prince George's Chamber of Commerce, said his organization had supported the tax since before last year's failed foray. With Montgomery and D.C. working to reduce plastic bags, he said, Prince George's can play a bigger part in keeping litter out of the Anacostia River.

"I supported it even those days," he said. "For our members, particularly those who are retail grocers, having plastic bags is just something that is really not helpful to their business."

mconnolly@washingtonexaminer.com

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