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Changes to the Scope of the County's Bag Tax
June 27, 2013

As you may know, our Council has recently taken up legislation that I have sponsored with three of my colleagues to narrow the scope of the County's tax on bags.  When the original bag tax was first introduced, I led our Council's deliberations over this measure and I am proud to have done so.  It has produced significant environmental benefits.

However, I have always had misgivings about the scope of the law.  When the initial bag tax was introduced, the Council was told that it was the recommendation of one of the sponsors of the DC measure, after which Montgomery County patterned its law, to learn from its mistake and not focus just on retail food establishments, but to include all retail establishments. As a result, the Montgomery County law includes not just the Giants, Safeways, and convenience stores, but also hair salons, jewelry stores, and clothing stores.  No other jurisdiction has adopted such a sweeping approach to this issue.    

My goal has always been to help bring about a shift in our collective consciousness that recognizes how easy it is to use reusable bags, rather than plastic bags in particular. Using reusable bags at the grocery store is a habit that most of us can adopt -- and based on my personal experience, many of us are doing just that.  I continue to believe that grocery stores, convenience stores, and other stores that sell a significant amount of food are reasonable places to expect us to use a reusable bag.

However, expecting people to bring a reusable bag into a clothing store, pet store, or department store strikes many of our residents as a bridge too far.  My concern is that by applying the law so broadly, instead of shifting consciousness in a positive way, it does the opposite -- it breeds resentment.  This resentment undermines our County's capacity to do more to help the environment.  I want to preserve our political capital for when we need it most, and not expend it on what I consider very marginal environmental gains.  I have seen very little evidence that our streams are littered with department store bags.  I have also received data from the Montgomery County Department of Environmental Protection showing that the vast majority of bags in the County are sold by vendors who will still be required to charge for bags.

I believe that by trimming this law, we are in fact strengthening it.  Importantly, I believe that by focusing on the stores that pose the greatest threat to our streams, we increase the likelihood that other jurisdictions will feel more comfortable in embracing the good work we are doing.  I certainly hope so.

I made a few remarks on this measure when the Council held a public hearing on it a few weeks ago.  You can see my remarks here, starting at the 2:00 mark. 
FY12 Budget: Environment June 2, 2011

This year's budget will fund the expansion of our Department of Environmental Protection's stormwater management, environmental site design and water quality protection programs.  These actions should have a direct positive impact on efforts to clean up the Chesapeake Bay. 

 

In addition, the County's new bag fee legislation will go into effect in January and is expected to raise $200,000 that will be deposited in the Water Quality Protection Fund.

 

I have been seriously concerned that the County was neglecting the protection of the tree canopy found on the County's right of way and thus is the responsibility of the County to protect and maintain.  Budget shortfalls in prior years necessitated significant cuts to this program.  Given the need to protect the lives and limbs of our citizens and to do our part to eliminate tree debris from disrupting utility performance it became prudent to move funds from the Street Tree Protection fund that engages block preventative pruning and use some of these monies for tree removal.  The County's back log of requests for removal of dead trees from the County's right of way had reached 1300 and counting.   $350,000 was shifted from the block pruning budget and an additional $350,000 was added to insure that dead and dangerous trees can be dealt with more quickly.

 

In order to continue a number of important efforts by the WSSC not the least of which is an aggressive large diameter water main inspection, repair and acoustic fiber optic monitoring program Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission's charges were increased by 8.5 percent.  This will provided full funding for WSSC's FY12 operating budget and full funding for WSSC's FY12-17 Capital Improvements Program.  

A Montgomery County Bag Fee March 8, 2011

 

Bag TaxAs a signator to the Trash Free Potomac Treaty, I am pleased to tell you that Montgomery County is moving one step closer to significantly reducing the number of plastic bags in our streams, trees and parks.

 

Yesterday, the County Executive announced that he would be sending to our Council legislation patterned after the successful program in DC that would impose a five cent per bag fee on all plastic and paper bags distributed by businesses in Montgomery County. As Chair of the Transportation, Infrastructure, Energy & Environment Committee, I joined the County Executive and leaders of the environmental community for this important announcement.

 

In my remarks supporting this initiative, I described the proposal as an "optional fee" rather than a tax - and it isn't just semantics to avoid the dreaded tax word.  We all have a choice here:  bring a reusable bag to the store and avoid the fee.  The goal of the program isn't to raise money - it is to help us to change our behavior.   

 

And the financial nudge works - in the District of Columbia, the preliminary results are that there is a 50-60% reduction in the use of plastic bags.  In addition, the business community, which was obviously wary at first, has found that it isn't an imposition on them after all:  businesses are saving money by not having to provide bags and 78% of businesses had a neutral or positive response as to how the bag fee was impacting their business.

 

I believe this is a win/win that gives everyone the freedom to either carry a bag or buy a bag.  A simple solution to a complex problem.




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