Opposition mounts to calls for a plastic bag fee in Howard County

Opposition is growing to a proposal that would permit Howard County to place a fee on plastic bags.

A state bill introduced by Del. Terri Hill would allow the county to impose a fee of up to 5 cents on plastic bags; it would not apply to paper bags, plastic bags used for bulk vegetables or produce, dry cleaning, newspapers or prescription drugs.

Hill, a Democrat who represents portions of Howard and Baltimore counties, introduced the bill on behalf of Less Plastic Please, an advocacy group concerned that the number of “single-use plastic bags” exacerbates climate change.

Howard County’s Chamber of Commerce and an Arbutus woman are among those fighting the proposal.

The County Council would have to pass a measure and set terms and conditions for any fees if the state legislature approves Hill’s bill next year.

County Executive Calvin Ball has said he is “not considering proposing a bag tax in Howard County,” and would not say if he would veto a future measure if one is passed by the County Council, which has entirely new members.

Chris Costello, a lobbyist at the Baltimore-based Public Sector Consulting Group hired by the county chamber of commerce, in an interview said the task for merchants to charge and collect the fee is “time consuming and a big fiduciary responsibility.”

About 80 percent of the business group’s 781 members are considered small businesses.

“There are a lot of problems that can come up,” Costello said.

Costello testified at a public meeting late last month and expressed concern that the bill would place onerous regulations on stores.

Merchants would take on a fiduciary responsibility by collecting the fee from consumers and turning it over to the county. Errors in this process could lead to legal penalties, Costello said.

“They could be called to task if it was a mistake,” he said.

In a letter acknowledging environmental concerns posed by plastic, Leonardo McClarty, the chamber president, wrote “from a business standpoint, this often means more regulation.”

The bill as written “forces consumers (and retailers) into paper, which costs four to five times more than plastic,” McClarty wrote. If the bill passes the legislature, McClarty requested the Howard County Council to share the costs of collecting the fees with businesses and consumers.

In neighboring Montgomery County, which imposed what critics have called a bag tax, merchants must send collections by the 25th of each month, file reports on the number of bags and preserve records for three years. Merchants who are late with their payments can be charged interest.

An online petition opposing the Howard County legislation, started two weeks ago by Melanie Harris of Arbutus, has received 49 signatures.

Harris, who earlier this year made an unsuccessful bid for the state legislature, started the petition because she “thinks the bag fee is a bad idea because it seems like the focus is to eliminate or drastically reduce plastic use.”

“There is a proven record in Montgomery that it does not do that,” said Harris, who shops for groceries in Jessup and Columbia.

In Montgomery County, 70 percent of bag distribution in 2015 came from grocery stores, according to county data. Montgomery found disposable bag use increased 3.2 percent between 2014 and 2015. The county in a 2015 report cited improved economic conditions and a rising population as influencing the increase.

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