- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 14, 2012

ANNAPOLIS — Lobbyists represent all kinds of clients in the state capital — even plastic grocery bags.

Plastic-bag manufacturers are fighting efforts by Prince George’s County lawmakers to pass a proposed 5-cent bag tax in the county, which supporters say would reduce littering and pollution.

While some taxpayers have voiced opposition to the tax, perhaps the most resistance has come from the American Progressive Bag Alliance (APBA) and American Chemistry Council (ACC), which have hired Annapolis lobbying firms this session to sway legislators and defend against what they consider unfair scapegoating of the industry.

Lobbyists argue that taxing plastic and paper bags could drive up families’ grocery bills and disproportionately hit low-income households. But many legislators who favor a bag tax say the lobbyists are overstating its financial impact and drumming up public outrage in order to help corporate interests.

“They are very well organized. More than anything else, that’s what this is about,” said Delegate Justin D. Ross, Prince George’s Democrat. “It’s about artificial turf as opposed to grass roots. It’s corporate money funding fake grass-roots efforts.”

Maryland lawmakers have become more receptive in recent years to taxing plastic bags, which environmentalists say make up a disproportionate amount of litter along roads and in waterways.

This year, Montgomery County enacted a 5-cent tax on most paper and plastic bags provided by supermarkets and retail stores in an effort to drive down demand and reduce pollution.

Prince George’s officials are looking to do the same. But unlike Montgomery County, Prince George’s local laws require approval from both county officials and the General Assembly. The County Council voted 8-0 last week in favor of a bag tax, but many delegates from the county are worried the tax could overburden shoppers — particularly in poorer communities where fabric, reusable bags may be less available or trendy.

Bag manufacturers have argued that plastic bags are not the problem and that officials should look to change public behavior by encouraging recycling rather than instituting a tax.

Both APBA and ACC argue that past taxes and bans in places such as Ireland and San Francisco did not reduce consumption or litter. They also say such a tax would force people who reuse their grocery bags to hold trash or carry their lunch to buy more plastic bags for the same purpose.

“The jury is still out on whether a bag tax actually works,” said APBA spokeswoman Donna Dempsey, whose organization was formed late last year and is lobbying for the first time in Annapolis.

ACC paid $70,000 to lobbyists last year, according to state records.

Many legislators say the criticism they have received from constituents has come with coaxing from the bag industry and that manufacturers have used form letters and phone calls to connect dissatisfied residents with lawmakers.

Delegate Veronica L. Turner, Prince George’s Democrat, said more than 90 percent of calls and emails she has received have been against the tax.

However, she said about 70 percent of them have come from residents who were first contacted by the anti-bag-tax lobbyists and had their calls transferred to her office.

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