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Montgomery County bag tax to take effect with new year

Debate continues over 5-cent fee

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Montgomery County Council President Roger Berliner has spent months getting in the habit of taking reusable bags on shopping trips, in preparation for the county's 5-cent tax on paper and plastic shopping bags that goes into effect Sunday.

He isn't quite there yet.

"I've got like four of them in my car," said Mr. Berliner, a Democrat. "And more often than not, I walk in the store without them."

Starting New Year's Day, grocers, retailers and other stores in the county will begin charging customers a nickel for every bag they need to carry off their wares. The tax was approved by the council in May and could bring the county more than $1 million a year.

Officials say the tax isn't about money and that its main purpose is to cut down on littering and polluting the county's waterways.

"We want to clean up, and all of the evidence points out that plastic bags in particular are a cause of problems," Mr. Berliner said. "The revenue side is immaterial to us."

The council voted 8 to 1 in favor of the tax, making Montgomery County the state's first jurisdiction to levy a tax on disposable bags.

The county will model its tax largely after one in the District, which enacted a 5-cent tax in January 2010 for all paper or plastic bags. Montgomery's tax will cover a wider range of stores than the District's, which covers only businesses that sell food or alcohol.

Critics contend the bag tax is another burden on shoppers in tough economic times and is not guaranteed to reduce littering or pollution.

District officials said last summer that the tax has been effective, generating $2.6 million in its first 16 months for environmental causes and education. They also cited a survey that found 75 percent of residents use fewer disposable bags because of the law.

Montgomery's bag-tax revenues will go to the county's Water Quality Protection fund, which pays for litter cleanup, stream restoration and runoff prevention.

To publicize the new tax, county officials are even handing out reusable bags at stores over the holidays.

Several residents said Tuesday outside a Giant grocery store in Silver Spring that they are ambivalent to the charge.

Robin Gerstad, of Silver Spring, applauds the county's efforts to encourage reuse but said it likely will not affect her ongoing efforts to cut down on waste.

Ms. Gerstad said she usually brings reusable bags, but on Tuesday needed a couple because she left hers in the car.

"Honestly, for me a few extra cents is not a big deal," she said. "But I think every little bit of encouragement helps."

While Montgomery is Maryland's first county to institute such a tax, it likely won't be the last in the heavily Democratic, environmentally conscious state.

Lawmakers from Prince George's County are expected to introduce a bill in this year's General Assembly that would pave the way for a bag tax in the county, at the behest of county officials who say it could help generate revenue and protect rivers and streams.

Prince George's law requires the County Council to receive state approval before implementing any new taxes.

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