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County Council member Lehman, Del. Frush pushing for disposable bag fee in Prince George's

By Lindsey McPherson, lmcpherson@patuxent.com

10:35 AM EST, February 1, 2012

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Laurel's County Council member Mary Lehman and state Del. Barbara Frush are pushing for a law that would requirePrince George's Countyshoppers to pay a fee for disposable bags.

Both lawmakers, who are Democrats, say the bag fee is an environmental initiative aimed to reduce the use of disposable bags, which are not often properly recycled and end up as litter.

"To me, if we get to enact this fee, we will be successful if we collect no revenue at all," Lehman said.

The fee would have to be approved by thePrince George's CountyCouncil, but before the council can take up the issue, the state has to pass enabling legislation.

Frush, who chairs the House Environment Subcommittee, and Prince George's County Democrat Sen. Paul Pinsky are sponsoring the enabling legislation, which is currently awaiting a vote from the Prince George's County delegation's County Affairs Committee. If it gets approval from the committee and then the entire delegation, the bill is expected to be given local courtesy and pass through the General Assembly.

This is not the first year in which Lehman and Frush are pushing the legislation. Last year, enabling legislation to allow Prince George's County to enact a bag fee passed through the Senate but died in the House because it was filed late and did not have the opportunity to go through the normal public vetting process.

Last year, the Prince George's County Council passed a resolution with six members in favor of the bag fee; two abstained and one was absent for the vote. Lehman said County Executive Rushern Baker is "100 percent behind it," having listed the bag fee as one of his top priorities for 2012.

'A fee you can see'

The state enabling legislation defines disposable bag as "a paper or plastic bag provided by a store to a customer at the point of sale." The bill lists several bags that would be exempt from the fee, including bags used to package bulk items, such as fruit, vegetables, nuts and candy; bags used to wrap frozen foods, meat or fish; bags used to hold newspapers or dry cleaning; bags pharmacist use to hold prescription drugs; and bags restaurants provide for carryout.

It would be up to the County Council to set up other parameters regarding the fee. Lehman said the fee would likely be 5 cents per bag — modeled after bag fees in Montgomery County and the District of Columbia — and she would push for the council to require all the revenue collected go toward paying for environmental initiatives. She said the fee would be applied to any business that holds a food license, but certain exemptions would be put into the law.

Lehman said she is promoting the bag fee as "a fee you can see." She explained that the three highest costs for grocers are labor, electricity and bags and that the stores charge consumers for those costs by marking up the prices of the goods they sell.

"Retailers pass the costs of bags onto people anyway, you just don't see it," Lehman said.

There are still some challenges Lehman said the council would have to work out before passing legislation, such as how to implement the program so it doesn't unintentionally burden low-income people. For example, she said the law may exempt people who participate in food assistance programs or the county may try to distribute reusable bags to people who can't afford to buy them.

Montgomery is proving ground

Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett proposed legislation to implement a bag fee last March, which the County Council approved. The fee took effect Jan. 1.

Bob Hoyt, director of Montgomery County's Department of Environmental Protection, said the fee is not meant to be a revenue-producing mechanism; it's meant to reduce the number of plastic bags that end up as litter.

"We're hoping when people go to their check-out lines they will bring their own bags and not have to pay the tax and not have a plastic bag that can be later found in a stream," he said.

Hoyt said many people do not properly dispose of plastic bags, and they end up polluting the environment, particularly local waterways.

"Once they're on the ground, they pick up whatever is on the ground, so there's bacteria that gets into the stream," he said. "They harm the habitat, the fish and whatever is in the streams."

In addition, Hoyt said plastic bags clog up storm drains and prevent the county's storm-water controls from working properly. Any revenue Montgomery raises from its fee will go to the county's Water Quality Protection Fund, which is spent on storm-water pollution controls.

The county does not yet have any data to release on how effective the bag fee has been so far, but Hoyt offered his thoughts on how residents were handling the change.

"We get questions, and not everybody is happy to take their carryout bag to the grocery store, but for the most part, we have not seen a significant outcry at all," he said. "People understand that it's good for the environment, and they're doing what they can."

Hoyt said most retailers, with exception of some small business, have also embraced the change.

"Most retailers are saying it's at least economically neutral, and in some cases it's a financial benefit," he said.

Montgomery County allows retailers to keep a penny from each 5 cent bag fee collected to help pay for overhead costs. Lehman said this is something Prince George's County will consider doing as well.

Asked if Montgomery County is hoping its bag fee will serve as a model for other counties, Hoyt said "absolutely." He said all the counties in the state and even jurisdictions in other states need to pull together to reduce litter in local waterways, such as the Anacostia River and the Chesapeake Bay.

Frush said her intention is to promote the bag fee and "to chip away county by county" until it becomes a statewide environmental initiative. Like in past years, Frush has signed on as a co-sponsor of a statewide disposable bag fee bill, but she said she's not sure it has the support to pass.

Lehman said she would also like to see every jurisdiction in the state join the effort to discourage use of disposable bags, but her main focus is on Prince George's County.

"I think D.C. has shown that it really is an incentive to change people's behavior, and that's really what we're after," she said. "It might take years, but I am 100-percent convinced that it's the right thing to do for the environment and the health of our communities."