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Bag the bag tax

The bag tax is back, and we must admit it's current incarnation is a lot less objectionable than the earlier attempts. The proposal that's getting shopped around the Baltimore City Council (including at a public hearing to be held Tuesday morning at City Hall) would impose a 5-cent fee on plastic bags handed out by city stores.

We still don't think it's the right time to impose yet another tax on city residents — and a particularly regressive one at that since the affluent are more apt to buy and use reusable bags — but we concede it's a much closer call than previous attempts. In January, the council pondered slapping on a 10-cent tax on bags. Five years earlier, the plan was to impose a 25-cent tax on bags, which would have been the highest in the nation.

So as bag taxes go, a nickel looks like a bargain, and it's consistent with what was approved in Washington, D.C. and Montgomery County, both of which saw significant decreases in the use of disposable bags. With fewer bags sold, there are fewer plastic bags littering the streets or ending up in nearby streams and rivers and eventually, the Chesapeake Bay and Atlantic Ocean.

That plastic bags are an environmental problem is difficult to dispute. They don't biodegrade, they're light and blow around, eventually breaking into smaller pieces and potentially causing harm to wildlife or clogging drainage systems. Frankly, they probably ought to be banned altogether.

But there is also a balance to be struck here. How much of a burden would the tax impose on the city's poorest families who are already dealing with high unemployment and reductions in government benefits such as food stamps and unemployment insurance benefits? Let's assume an individual might need five bags per week — that's $13 per year. For less than that, he or she can buy reusable bags and avoid that cost altogether.

We'll admit the toll such a tax might impose is not horrific, particularly for middle class earners and above. But for those living hand-to-mouth and supporting a family, it represents a sacrifice and not necessarily an insignificant one. It's one thing to tax them on sugary drinks with minimal nutritional value, as the city's container tax does, it's quite another to say the bags a person may use to carry such essentials as bread, milk and eggs must be taxed as well.

There's also a question of image: Does Baltimore really want to adopt yet another nuisance tax at a time when the city is trying to lower property taxes and make itself a more attractive place for families to live? Can't the city find the hundreds of thousands of dollars the bag tax would raise elsewhere in the budget and use it to promote reusable bags or to clean up waterways?

It would be one thing if most other cities, towns and counties in the state imposed the same fee, but they don't. The District of Columbia may be happy with the results of its bag tax, but there's a difference between the two cities — median household income in the nation's capital is $64,267 while in Baltimore, it's $40,803, a difference of nearly $24,000.

That's not to suggest we don't see a benefit from imposing a bag tax which, incidentally, ought to be applied to paper bags as well (or else the legislation will simply convert people from plastic to the more costly paper, which has environmental drawbacks of its own). And we suspect that businesses won't mind since the proposal would allow them to cover their administrative costs.

Nor do we blame advocates, including the bill's sponsors James B. Kraft and Bill Henry, for wanting to reduce this major source of litter. The tax has been proven to be effective in that regard. It's something that probably ought to be adopted here and elsewhere — eventually.

The bottom line is that at a time when many in this city are still struggling to meet basic needs, a tax that would hit the poor so disproportionately seems ill-timed and unwise. Let the suburban counties with their lower concentrations of poverty make this choice first. Baltimore simply can't voluntarily be raising costs for those left out of the economic recovery, not when there are other choices available to reduce litter.

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