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State bill to bring plastic bag fee to Howard County advances in General Assembly

State lawmakers representing Howard County voted Wednesday to advance a bill that could lead to a county fee on plastic bags.

The bill, sponsored by Del. Terri Hill and advanced from the delegation, doesn’t set a fee but would permit the County Council and county executive to do so — up to 5 cents a bag — if they desire. Such a fee would be on the purchase certain bags at the point of sale.

The bill still must pass through committee reviews and be approved by the House, Senate and Gov. Larry Hogan.

The County Council has not said if it will pursue a bag fee, but the four Democratic council members — Christiana Mercer-Rigby, who represents Savage and North Laurel; Opel Jones, who represents Oakland Mills and Columbia; Liz Walsh, who represents Elkridge, Hanover and parts of Ellicott City; and Deb Jung, representing five Columbia villages and parts of Clarksville — sent a letter of support for the enabling legislation.

They stated they are interesting in debating and discussing potential legislation in the future.

County Executive Calvin Ball previously has said he doesn’t plan to introduce legislation on the issue.

Pat Hersey and Alisa Niefeld-Batiz, co-founders of Less Plastic Please, the advocacy group who lobbied Hill to file the bill, said in a statement supporting the delegation’s vote that they don’t believe a bag fee should be used to raise money for the county, but instead would be a deterrent to using plastic bags.

“It is all about changing behavior. To create a sustainability planet we must throw away our throwaway mentality,” they said in the statement. “We do not have time to waste."

The delegation bill was amended by the delegation before passage to require the county to use any revenue from a fee to establish a program to provide reusable bags for people in Howard County. 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.

Sen. Guy Guzzone, a Democrat who serves as Majority Leader in the Senate, voted for the measure though acknowledging he does “not love this bill.” He said he thinks plastic bags should be banned as opposed to charging a fee.

“We’ve got work to do,” he said in regard to reducing the amount of plastic in Howard County. “I’m voting for this simply because it will move things in the right direction.”

Before voting against the bill, Del. Warren E. Miller, a Republican who represents portions of Howard County in District 9A, expressed concern about the potential impact of the legislation on local businesses.

“Howard is a small county. [It will] have an impact on our grocery stores and on our retailers,” he said, adding it would be easy for shoppers to go to a neighboring county where a fee is not imposed.

“This is putting our stores at a disadvantage,” he said.

Miller and Del. Trent Kittleman were the only lawmakers in the delegation to vote against the bill.

Last year the Howard County Chamber of Commerce voiced opposition to a plastic bag fee. Its president said that if one is imposed, the County Council should share costs of collecting the fees with businesses and consumers.

Neighboring Montgomery County in 2012 imposed a 5-cent tax on disposable bags and the revenues are given to “help to shift the burden of litter cleanup costs from public taxpayers to consumers who have a choice to avoid the 5-cent charge by bringing reusable bags,” according to the county website.

Baltimore City in 2014 proposed an outright ban on plastic bags. The legislation was vetoed by then-Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake. The legislature considered a similar measure in 2014 but the bill died in committee.

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