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A bill passed by the Howard County delegation last month would allow the County Council to consider placing a fee of up to 5 cents a bag at the point of sale.
A bill passed by the Howard County delegation last month would allow the County Council to consider placing a fee of up to 5 cents a bag at the point of sale. (Kenneth K. Lam / Baltimore Sun file)

Legislation that would allow Howard County to charge for plastic bags might have a “meaningful impact” on small business, a state financial analysis found.

A bill introduced last month would allow the County Council to consider levying a fee of up to 5 cents a bag at the point of sale in stores.

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Small-business owners would be “affected to the extent they must pay a fee to continue to provide such bags and/or update their accounting systems to track fees due and paid to the county,” a state fiscal analysis found. “Stores may choose to pass on any increase in costs to customers in the form of higher prices.”

Revenue generated from the fee program would bring Howard County an estimated $290,000 annually if each household purchased one bag per week, based on 2017 U.S. census data. If each household purchased three bags per week, the county would receive $870,000 annually.

The revenues would be required to go back into environmental purposes, support administrative costs or support a program to help with access to reusable bags.

“Any impact on small businesses resulting from the county’s use of fee revenue for environmental purposes … is unknown,” the fiscal note said.

When the Maryland General Assembly convenes for its 2019 session next week, Howard County’s delegation will tackle an agenda that’s been forming for the past several months — and will have a few new faces to help carry it out.

The bill moved by Howard’s delegation allows the county to consider letting merchants keep the fee for themselves.

Its primary purpose, however, is not to increase revenue but change behavior, according to Del. Terri Hill, a Democrat, who filed the bill and represents portions of Howard and Baltimore counties in the General Assembly.

The measure would exclude a fee for plastic bags used for certain items, among them bulk vegetables or produce, dry cleaning, newspapers or prescription drugs.

In Annapolis at a hearing before the House Environment and Transportation Committee, Robert Johnson, a representative of the American Progressive Bag Alliance, spoke against the bill, arguing the fee is essentially a tax.

“The people that can least afford to pay the nickel … are the ones who are going to be hurt the most,” said Johnson adding those who rely on public transportation are unlikely to carry disposable bags and would be forced to pay the fee.

Joel Hurewitz, Columbia resident who lobbied Hill to file the bill in his written testimony said a “tax on bags is nominal compared to the many others which Howard County imposes including income and property taxes, phone tax and 911 fees,” adding the “fee is voluntary if a customer brings a reusable bag which is the underlying purpose of the fee in the first place.”

Plastic bags, which are made from polyethylene, emit greenhouse gases and contribute to climate change, according to a 2018 report by researchers at the University of Hawaii.

In 2012, Montgomery County imposed a 5-cent fee on disposable bags. Revenues are given to “help to shift the burden of litter cleanup costs from public taxpayers to consumers,” according to the county website.

Montgomery found disposable bag sales increased 3.2 percent between 2014 and 2015, according to county data. In a 2015 report, the county cited improved economic conditions and a rising population as influencing the increase. Seventy percent of bag distribution in 2015 came from grocery stores.

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