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Committee Moves To Narrow Scope Of Bag Tax

by Aaron Kraut — November 4, 2013 at 1:25 pm 180 2 Comments

Flickr photo by Mr. T in DCCounty council members and county executive staff on Monday argued over a proposed bag tax rollback that would exempt department stores and food take-out places from charging the 5-cent fee for plastic bags.

The bill, sponsored by Councilmembers Roger Berliner, Nancy Floreen, George Leventhal and Craig Rice, would maintain the bag tax at retail stores where food is more than 2 percent of annual sales. The bill is meant to maintain the tax at grocery stores and big box retailers that have grocery sections, such as Target.

County Executive Isiah Leggett and his Department of Environmental Protection say the tax, which went into effect Jan. 1, 2012, should be given more time before the county exempts certain retailers. Berliner says the fee, which generated more than double the anticipated amount of revenue in 2012, was never meant to create revenue, but rather to change behavior.

Berliner and other council members who voted for the original bag tax have argued they now think it is overreaching and is breeding resentment.

“I should have been more insistent on understanding why we were doing what we were doing,” Berliner said at an Environment Committee worksession on Monday. “No other jurisdiction that I’m aware of anywhere is as broad as we are.”

Department of Environmental Protection Director Bob Hoyt and Assistant Chief Administrative Officer Kathleen Boucher defended the law as is, saying a study with two years-worth of data on the tax could be done to see how the public views the fee and whether it is leading changes in shopping behavior.

Hoyt said the original tax included non-food retail stores on the recommendation of officials in D.C., where the city passed a measure that created confusion for retailers such as CVS and others that sold both food and non-food products.

“We don’t have evidence or data upon which to make these tweaks,” Boucher said. She added that Leggett does’t see the resentment Berliner has cited.

Berliner and Floreen voted to recommend the rollback for passage. Councilmember Hans Riemer, the third member of the Environment Committee, voted against recommendation. All three members agreed to add liquor stores to the definition of food stores so the tax would remain in effect there.

The worksession was contentious at times, with Floreen and Boucher attempting to talk over each other. Hoyt and Rice had similar exchanges in March, when the Committee first discussed the possibility of exempting some stores.

Much of the argument from both sides is based on anecdotal evidence. Floreen and Rice both talked about their personal shopping experiences. The county doesn’t have data on the number of bags from non-food stores have been found in streams, but has relied on testimony from environmental activists who clean up streams.

Using numbers from the first year of the bag tax, the county estimated a loss of 1.83 million in FY 2014 if non-food stores were exempt. But Council staff and council members doubted those numbers, which were calculated by looking at how much stores contributed toward the fee in the first year.

The county estimated the number of bags taxed would decrease by 38 percent, a number which Riemer said was too high.

The fee would still apply to non-food purchases in “food” stores.

Flickr photo by Mr. T in DC

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  • MDN Kensington

    How can you not do the math? If the law is to make money then say that, but if the
    law is to cut down on trash as it claims to be then just do the math. Take the amount of trash(X) placed into the landfill the year before the law went into effect. Then take the amount of trash(y) placed into the landfill the year the law went into effect. Make sure to add in the increased trash from the population by taking the average trash growth from the years before (z). Then how much less is (y+z) from (x). If it’s not less than the law is not doing what it set out to do and it is just to make money. Not knowing the data is not acceptable!

    If you want to effect a real change then make a change. Why not weigh trash? And charge people who throw away more trash then other people. Give everyone the same trash can and set up a lift onto each of the trash trucks. When the trash people come to pick up the trash the lift weighs the trash and if it’s over (x) amount it notes this. Then at the end of the month people will get a bill for the additional trash. If people can’t get all the trash into the can they will also get an additional charge. This will allow people to take the time to separate the trash they have into recycling to
    prevent any additional charges.

    You could also give out credits from the prophets made on the aluminum the city
    recycles. But that would be less money.

    The fact is the bag tax is just a money grab and not about the environment as it claims to be.

  • Cathy Drzyzgula

    5 cents isn’t enough to change behavior in this County, which is why the revenue has been higher than originally projected. Make the tax higher for stores with food and drink but exempt department stores at a minimum. I have a bag I bring when shopping for clothes, but everyone looks at me like I’m going to shoplift something. I’m fine with bringing bags for grocery shopping, or sometimes just emptying the cart into my car (a la Costco)..

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