Virginia lawmakers will decide next year whether to impose a nickel tax on plastic bags just like patrons pay in D.C. and Montgomery County in Maryland.
Del. Joe Morrissey, D-Highland Springs, is proposing the tax to raise money for Virginia's Water Quality Improvement Fund, a key revenue stream for Chesapeake Bay cleanup. If passed, by July 2014, every plastic bag handed out at the register at grocery stores, convenience stores and drugstores would cost customers 5 cents.
Bags used for ice cream, meat, fish, poultry, leftover restaurant food, newspapers, dry cleaning and prescription drugs would be exempt from the tax. Retailers could keep 1 cent of the tax -- 2 cents if they had a program that gave patrons money off their bill for bringing their own bags.
Businesses that failed to collect that tax would be subject to a $250 fine that would double on the second and third offenses.
For three years, the District has required a similar 5-cent tax at the checkout lane of anyone licensed to sell food, and a measure that taxes all plastic bags went into affect in Montgomery County this year.
The architect of D.C.'s bag tax, Ward 6 D.C. Councilman Tommy Wells, said the program has been a huge success for the city, decreasing the number of plastic bags in the Anacostia River by 60 percent.
Revenue from the tax has decreased the past two years, dropping to $1.6 million in 2012. But Wells said that's a good thing.
"It means it worked and fewer people are using disposable bags," Wells said. "You don't see them blowing in our trees anymore that mars our landscape. It's just an unqualified success."
Some lawmakers in Maryland attempted to push a statewide bag tax, but it failed. Maryland's Prince George's County is expected to try once again to pass a measure similar to Montgomery County's.
Virginia so far has warded off attempts to tax costumers who prefer plastic bags. Fairfax County Supervisor Pat Herrity, R-Springfield, said he prefers his state not to follow in the footsteps of its Democratic neighbors.
"So often the focus is on the good it does, but what we forget is the cost to our businesses and we also forget the cost to our government, not to mention the customers," Herrity said. "If you're a small business, you've got to administer the tax, you've got to report it, you've got to remit it. And with the budgetary problems they have right now, I don't think adding a bag tax is the direction we need to be going. I think we should bag the bag tax."