It now appears that City Hall not only lacks updated phone equipment but suffers a shortage of TV sets, radios and other modern communications gear. Nothing else could explain the Baltimore City Council's handling of plastic shopping bag legislation, which on Monday night morphed from an unwelcome tax to a head-scratching ban.
Did anyone on Holliday Street notice the election conducted last week? Surely not. Had they observed the results, they might have noticed that residents of Maryland made a rather loud statement at the polls with one of the biggest upsets in the nation. They voted in Republican Larry Hogan to be Maryland's next governor on the strength of a message repeated like a broken record — get government off the backs of people and businesses so that the local economy might flourish.
A majority of city voters may have preferred Mr. Hogan's opponent, but even the most die-hard Democrat can't deny the anti-tax, anti-regulatory fervor that possesses the majority of the state at this crossroads moment. If the city is serious about attracting new residents and fostering economic growth, the council can't continue legislating like Baltimore was some upscale liberal enclave like New York City where a bag ban is embraced no matter its cost. Oh, wait, hold the phone. Even New York hasn't gone there. Baltimore would be the first city on the East Coast to ban plastic shopping bags from grocery stores and big-box retailers.
Making this even more maddening is the abruptness of it all. The council, which had been considering a 5-cent bag tax (after earlier thinking seriously about a 10-cent bag tax) took the unusual step of amending the bag fee bill into a ban and then giving it preliminary approval without actually holding a hearing on that specific proposal. What were they thinking? No need for public input? There was some kind of deadline for banning bags? Transparency is overrated?
And while we'd like to say this was the fault of some small rump group that kidnapped the council's agenda, we can't. The vote was 11-1 with only Councilwoman Rochelle "Rikki" Spector voting against it. Whatever they've been drinking at City Hall, it appears most everyone has had a sip — except for Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake who has already indicated she will veto it.
Councilman James B. Kraft, who sponsored the bill, has suggested that the ban should be more acceptable to the electorate because it's not a tax. But he seems to have missed Mr. Hogan's point altogether. It still raises costs as alternatives to plastic are significantly more expensive. Those costs get passed along to consumers — or else they become just one more straw on the camel's back for businesses that hardly need another disincentive to set up shop in Baltimore.
We sympathize with Mr. Kraft's goal. Plastic bags are an environmental problem. They don't break down. They can cause harm to wildlife and clog drainage systems. And someday they probably will be banned or consumers will voluntarily refuse them. But there are a bunch of things we could use less of — tobacco and alcohol, for example — but we can't just ban them and think there's no cost in terms of jobs and economic activity.
Sorry, but there are bigger problems facing this city than plastic grocery bags floating around the streets and clogging the storm drains. The city's unemployment rate was over 10 percent in August. The unemployment rate for African-Americans is higher still. Poverty is what ails this city. That there are people living in the gutter in Baltimore ought to haunt the City Council far more than the presence of plastic bags there.
While we thought a 5-cent bag tax was a tough call last April when we last expressed our opposition to it, the bag ban really isn't. Not just because of the election (although that alone would be sufficient) but because of how the City Council has chosen to railroad its passage. Governance is about making choices and weighing costs and rewards in a thoughtful, open manner. Banning plastic bags, even with exemptions for restaurant carryout, prescription drugs and fresh produce, dairy or meat, is an idea whose time has not come, at least not yet, and clearly isn't something that needs to be done hurriedly or without giving the public a better chance to express its opinions.