The Howard County Council passed legislation, 4-1, Monday night that requires a 5-cent fee on disposable plastic bags used in stores.
The law comes almost 10 months after state Del. Terri Hill, a Democrat, sponsored a bill in Annapolis to permit the County Council and the county executive to impose a fee, and one month after Councilwoman Christiana Mercer Rigby and Councilman Opel Jones introduced the bill at the Nov. 4 legislative session meeting.
“I want to thank the over 700 Howard County residents who [reached out during the legislative process and] want to see single-use plastic reduced,” Rigby said when voting Monday. “The fees do change consumer behavior. Why not do what you can where you can with what you can?”
All four Democratic members of the County Council voted in favor of Council Bill 64-2019, with the one no vote coming from the lone Republican councilman, David Yungmann, who said he would’ve liked to have seen a paper bag tax included as well.
One of three amendments to the bill, that would have led to an outright ban of disposable plastic bags at the point of sale, failed by a 3-2 vote.
County Executive Calvin Ball, a Democrat, said earlier Monday that if the legislation came to his desk, he would “definitely sign it.”
“I appreciate them moving forward with addressing the single-use plastic in the way that they think is best based upon what they’ve heard from our county,” Ball said.
The tax would go into effect 61 days after Ball signs it into law.
Before the three amendments to the bill were discussed and voted on, Jones provided opening remarks on the legislation, calling it “a great start." He estimated a net revenue of $439,000 from the 5-cent fee in the first year, and $685,400 every year after.
Auditors estimate that the legislation would require $100,000 start-up costs and $85,000 in administrative costs. These funds will need to be secured by the county during the budgeting process in April.
The first amendment to the bill passed unanimously, changing the amount a store may retain for administrative expenses from 10% to 20%. In essence, this gives 1 cent back to the store, versus the previously proposed half-cent. The other 4 cents from each plastic bag go to the county.
The second amendment, which also passed unanimously, altered the enforcement date from July 1 to Oct. 1. The council took into consideration the state legislature might pass a paper bag tax so pushed back the enforcement date in hopes of coordinating implementation.
“[This amendment] allows [the] situation to see what the state does," Yungmann said. “Retailers won’t need to implement one system in June or July and another later.”
A lot of the bill’s discussion was focused on the failed third amendment, which brought a passionate and lively exchange to a late-evening vote and detailed a ban on disposable plastic bags after a certain date. The amendment was introduced by Councilwoman Deb Jung last week.
“If we really want to be in the forefront of this movement and we want to do the right thing. ... A ban is where we need to go,” Jung said. “What we really want to see happen is bags going away."
Councilwoman Liz Walsh agreed, arguing that the purpose of the bill, as passed, was to raise revenue rather than reduce plastic use, and that a ban would be more effective at reducing plastic use in the county.
Jones and Rigby pushed back, arguing the bill was the best option available, and said the data backs up the case for a fee rather than a ban.
“I think for luxury items like straws, bans make sense,” Rigby said. “If a ban worked, we would do a ban.”
Yungmann joined Jones and Rigby in voting against the amendment.
For Pat Hersey, a Columbia resident who attended the vote alongside other community activists dressed in green “less plastic please” T-shirts, the legislation means “a successful step towards the betterment of Howard County.”
Hersey organized local support after a bag tax failed at the state level in 2017 and pushed for the County Council to take up the legislation.
“We found that the [fee was the] most effective way to change behavior, because we see this as bigger than plastic bags," Hersey said. "We see this as a way to change behavior and to throw away our throwaway mentality. The most effective way to do that is through the fee.”
Rigby echoed those remarks in her closing statement before casting her yes vote, emphasizing the change in consumer behavior as the benefit of the bag fee.
Jones, before voting yes, said: "Here in Howard County we need some profit for education and cleanup.”
The revenue from the bag tax would be used to establish a program that will provide reusable bags to vulnerable individuals in the county; make grants to entities engaged in water quality and water pollution education; support environmental education programs, including stream cleanups and anti-littering education; and create activities to educate the public about the benefits and methods of reducing the use of disposable plastics.
Yungmann’s desire for paper bags to be included is expected to be taken up by the state during the next legislative session.
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In later business Monday night, Jung was elected council chairwoman, replacing Rigby, and Walsh was elected vice chairwoman, replacing Jones.