Plastic-bag makers fight 5-cent tax in P.G. County

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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.

Nonetheless, other lawmakers insist there are genuine concerns from many residents who have spoken against the tax without coaxing from the bag industry.

Delegate Melony G. Griffith, a Democrat and chairwoman of the Prince George’s County delegation, said county officials agree there is a litter problem but are unsure whether a tax on consumers is the right solution.

“Clearly, a problem has been identified,” she said. “Members are just struggling with whether a bag tax is the solution.”

Sen. Paul G. Pinsky, Prince George’s Democrat, contended that a bag tax could actually help shoppers save on groceries, as many supermarkets already offer a 5-cent refund for every reusable bag that a customer brings.

He also argued that the price of disposable bags is already built into grocery prices and that a bag tax has reaped major environmental benefits in the District and could do the same in Maryland.

The District implemented its 5-cent tax in January 2010 and estimated last summer that it generated $2.6 million for environmental causes and education. The city also said 75 percent of residents used fewer disposable bags because of the law.

Bag manufacturers “are the only ones who lose, because people are going to buy fewer bags,” Mr. Pinsky said. “We’ve got to be looking forward. We can’t just placate bag companies.”

The General Assembly is also considering a statewide bag tax proposed by Sen. Brian E. Frosh, Montgomery Democrat, that would apply only to jurisdictions that have not enacted a local tax.

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