By ADAM KERLIN
ANNAPOLIS (March 10, 2010)—The General Assembly has been reluctant to raise taxes in an election year, but 39 legislators across both chambers are cosponsoring an act that would place a 5-cent tax on disposable carryout bags.
The Chesapeake Bay Restoration Consumer Retail Choice Act would require Maryland businesses to tack the 5-cent fee onto each disposable bag used by a customer.
Businesses stand to receive a penny per bag sold, unless they offer a 5-cent credit to customers who provide reusable bags when checking out. Businesses offering the credit would receive 2 cents for every bag sold. The rest would go to the Chesapeake Bay and Atlantic Coastal Bays 2010 Trust Fund.
Del. Kathleen Dumais, D-Montgomery, thinks it's reasonable to question whether now is the right time to place an additional fee on Maryland residents, but she cites the Bay's deterioration and proven evidence that plastic bags pose a harm to the environment as her reasons for cosponsoring the bill.
"It's time we at least discuss making some of these kinds of changes," Dumais said. "I think it is an important environmental issue."
The legislation comes after the Council of the District of Columbia unanimously passed a similar law last summer, which took effect Jan. 1. The tax requires all businesses selling food and alcohol in the District to charge 5 cents per disposable bag.
The District's tax was also developed for the purpose of preserving the environment, with the proceeds going towards keeping the Anacostia River and its tributaries free of pollution.
Delegate Cheryl Glenn, D-Baltimore, said plastic bags have declined in quality over the years, leading her to double up at the grocery store. Glenn fears the cost will add up for a large family grocery shopping.
"The people I represent don't want to pay any more money for anything else right now," Glenn said.
Sue Feehan, a long-time resident of Annapolis, had a hard time deciding what to get for lunch at Annapolis' Graul's Market Tuesday. Feehan, who regularly shops at Graul's, said she'd have no choice but to bring her own bags if the 5-cent fee passes.
"I would have no choice, would I," Feehan said. "If it cost me 5 cents I wouldn't use them."
Members of the House Environmental Matters Committee, where the bill was heard, were concerned that it would negatively affect small businesses. But D.C. Council member Tommy Wells, D-Ward 6, said the District's fee has been successful and small businesses have benefitted.
"What I've only heard directly is that there has been cost savings because you are not giving away the bags," Wells said.
Maryland's bill would also require businesses and the Department of the Environment to invest in educational initiatives aimed at reducing pollution.
Businesses would have to display the phrase "please recycle this bag," or something similar to it, on every carryout bag. All bags sold by businesses would also have to be 100 percent recyclable.
The bill, which has one Republican cosponsor, Delegate Susan Aumann, R-Baltimore County, mandates the Department of the Environment prepare an intensive public service campaign designed to inform people of the negative impact disposable carryout bags have on the health of the Chesapeake Bay and the state.
Pick Up America, a young environmentalist group with a nationwide initiative committed to reducing plastic waste, will begin an 18-month U.S. trash pickup beginning March 20.
Davey Rogner, Pick Up America's campaign coordinator and a Silver Spring resident, will be joined by four other Pick Up America members on the cross-country trek. The members support the bill, which they think puts a great emphasis on reusing before recycling.
"As tirelessly as we will work to clean the waterways, our initiative can only go so far to directly address this source of litter in our state," Rogner said. "When we leave to walk across the country, we would really like a bill to show the other states ... there is another option to encourage reuse."
Capital News Service contributed to this report.