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SCHOOL CLOSINGS

Prince George's bag fee bill unexpectedly killed in House committee

Just three weeks ago, local elected officials were hailing thePrince George's County Delegation's vote to support a bill authorizing the county to impose a fee for disposable bags as a sign it would pass through the General Assembly.

But on March 24, the House Environmental Matters Committee voted, 12-11, to kill the bill. The move surprised and disappointed Laurel-area elected officials who were leading the efforts to get the bill passed.

"It's very, very frustrating," said District 21 Del. Barbara Frush, the bill's lead supporter in the House. "It was a local bill. We did not get local courtesy. I was very angry about it."

Typically, if a bill is specific to a local jurisdiction and the county delegation supports it, the rest of the General Assembly will give it "local courtesy" and vote it into law. ThePrince George's CountyDelegation voted, 12-9, March 2 to support the bag fee bill, which would require retailers to charge a fee for disposable bags.

Frush said she's not sure why 12 of her fellow Environmental Matters Committee members voted against the bill, other than some said they don't like the concept of bag fees.

"There were also members of the (Prince George's County) Delegation who were working against the bill," she said, specifically noting that Upper Marlboro Democrat Marvin Holmes voted against the bill during the committee's vote.

Mary Lehman, Laurel's representative on the Prince George's County Council, has been the primary elected official pushing for a bag fee in the county. She, too, was disappointed by the committee's vote, calling the decision not to give the bill local courtesy "offensive and astonishing."

"When it passed the delegation, I knew it wasn't over with, but I never thought that (the Environmental Matters Committee) would the be stumbling block," Lehman said.

She explained that committee chair Del. Maggie McIntosh had assured her early in the session that the bill would pass Environmental Matters as long as the delegation supported it. But in the past few weeks, Lehman said, "apparently there were some members of the delegation that went to (McIntosh) and said 'People are going to make noise, it's going to be ugly.' "

Lehman said she didn't understand why some politicians were so fired up about the bill given that it was enabling legislation and that the final decision to impose the fee would rest with the County Council.

"The ironic thing is most lawmakers down there will tell you, 'What do I care? I don't care if Prince George's has a bag fee,' " she said.

Had the General Assembly passed the enabling legislation, the bag fee had enough support from Prince George's County Council members to pass. The proposal was also backed by County Executive Rushern Baker III.

In an emailed statement, spokesman Scott Peterson wrote that the Baker administration was disappointed that the bill failed.

"It is an important piece of enabling legislation that was proposed to assist the County in its federal environmental regulations under the Clean Water Act," Peterson wrote in the statement. "We will continue to work on ways to address our federal environmental cleanup requirements. We also will remain vigilant in maintaining clean communities by removing plastic litter and debris from our waterways."

Baker had testified before the Environmental Matters Committee in favor of the bill. So did Frush, Lehman and Laurel City Council member Mike Leszcz.

The elected officials were promoting the bag fee as a way to cut down on plastic bag litter, particularly in local waterways. Prince George's County's Department of Public Works, in its most recent budget, spent $2.5 million on litter control.

Frush said the death of the bill "is a shame for the environment."

Plastic bags are the largest source of litter pollution in the Anacostia River, according to the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments.

Montgomery County and the District of Columbia, both jurisdictions like Prince George's that border the Anacostia River, have already enacted 5 cent bag fees.

Unlike Montgomery, Prince George's County does not have the individual authority to impose such a fee and thus needed the enabling legislation passed by the General Assembly.

Now that this year's effort has failed, Frush and Lehman are already looking to next year. They both said they are hopeful the bill's fate will be different.

"We'll have new leadership in the delegation next year, and I think that will change it, too," Frush said.

Lehman said she plans to work harder and get support from communities represented by delegation members who opposed the bill. She also said officials may try to route the bill through the House Economic Matters Committee next year, instead of Environmental Matters.

Regardless of the obstacles, Lehman said: "I'm in this for the long haul. It's the right thing to do."

This story has been updated.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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