Customers who shop in Baltimore would have to pay 5 cents for each plastic bag at supermarkets and other merchants under legislation that's making its way through the City Council.
A key council committee voted Wednesday to send the measure to the full council, where it is expected to receive a vote Monday.
A majority of City Council members support the bill. And Councilman James B. Kraft, the bill's sponsor, who has spent a decade pushing for the measure as way to reduce litter, said he is confident that the fee will pass.
But several council members raised concerns about a new fee after Tuesday's election, in which Republican Larry Hogan won the gubernatorial race. Hogan had put a spotlight on what he characterized as high taxes and government-imposed fees.
Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, who previously said she would sign legislation imposing plastic bag fees, softened her position Wednesday. She said her support depends on how the final bill is crafted.
"I will always have concerns about imposing more taxes and fees," the mayor said, when asked about whether she would support the bill. "I had to do a significant amount of that in order to climb out of the Great Recession, so I'm always cautious about that. But until I see the latest iteration, I can't say."
Councilwomen Helen Holton and Rochelle "Rikki" Spector both noted that voters sent a strong message Tuesday when they delivered a victory to Hogan. They said the city needs to be judicious about passing on any new fees to residents.
"I can't keep punishing the people who live in the city," said Spector, who opposes the measure. "We keep getting in people's pocketbooks. It gives the merchants and the consumers in the city an unfair situation to deal with."
Holton said she's still trying to make up her mind.
"I support it in theory because we do need to something to encourage people to be more environmentally conscious," she said. "My concern has always been, it is an unfair burden on poor people."
Holton said she could be persuaded to support the measure by using the revenue it generates to offset other expenses city taxpayers shoulder, including projects aimed at cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay.
Under Kraft's bill, retailers would keep a penny and a half for each plastic bag to offset their costs. The rest — an estimated $1.5 million in the first year — would go to city coffers.
Kraft said he wants the money raised to clean up the harbor and city parks, though he said the measure isn't intended to be a money maker but to discourage the use of plastic bags.
"My goal is that we don't make any money out of this because if people don't use the bags, we won't collect the fees," he said. "It's a behavior change."
Plastic bags used to carry fresh produce and meat, dairy, prescriptions and prepared foods would be exempt. Retailers that fail to charge for the plastic bags would face a fine, as well as interest and penalties for late payments.
The legislation would take effect on April 1.
Some retailers and environmentalists want the city to charge for paper bags, too.
But Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young and Councilman Robert W. Curran said they would vote for the fee only if it applies just to plastic. "I cannot support it unless there is some sort of option for folks not to pay the fee," Curran said.
Young previously opposed the proposal, saying it was a regressive tax that would hurt low-income families. He also has said he was not convinced charging for plastic would reduce litter.
But on Wednesday, Young told the Judiciary and Legislative Investigations Committee that he now supports the measure after seeing customers willingly paying for plastic bags at some stores.
"I've seen residents buy 10 bags," he said, adding that he is opposed to charging for paper bags.
Michael Snidal, the Baltimore Development Corp.'s food retail economic development officer, urged the council to also charge a fee for paper, saying that a plastic bag fee would prompt customers to switch to paper. Paper bags cost retailers more than twice as much as plastic.
"That would put less of a burden on retailers," Snidal told the committee members.
Representatives from several environmental advocacy groups testified at Wednesday's hearing to support the measure and recommend charging for paper bags, noting that paper also contributes to the city's litter problem.
But Kraft urged support for the plastic-only fee.
"Seventy-five percent of something is better than 100 percent of nothing," he said.
Baltimore Sun reporter Natalie Sherman contributed to this article.