- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 4, 2012

ANNAPOLIS — A bill to implement a 5-cent bag tax in Prince George’s County is alive and moving along after languishing for nearly a month in a General Assembly committee.

The legislation is now in a House committee after being approved last week by the county’s 23-member House delegation, which supporters say was its biggest potential roadblock. The vote was 12-9, with two members absent.

The General Assembly generally defers to counties on local bills and passes the legislation, unless glaring concerns arise.

“I think it’s passed the biggest hurdle,” said Delegate Justin D. Ross, Prince George’s Democrat. “This is about environmental justice. It’s about kids not having to walk by trash on the way to school.”

The vote came as a minor surprise, considering the bill appeared to be facing long odds after an unfavorable report by the delegation’s six-member County Affairs Committee. Members voted on the bill three times last month, each time falling short of the four votes needed for a favorable review.

If passed by the House and Senate, the bill would allow the county to charge shoppers 5 cents for each disposable plastic or paper bag they receive at grocery and some retail stores. The proposal must pass the assembly because Prince George’s law requires state approval for every new local tax.

It would make Prince George’s the second county in Maryland to institute a bag tax, following Montgomery County which enacted its 5-cent tax in January.

Prince George’s proposed bag tax has received strong support from County Executive Rushern L. Baker III, a Democrat, and the County Council, which has downplayed the revenue aspect and argued that it will curb littering and pollution along streets and in waterways.

“Although we have to give a little bit, we’re going to get a lot more out of it,” College Park resident Mary Cook said. “People have a choice — they can either take their [reusable] bags or not take their bags.”

However, the county’s all-Democratic state delegation has been divided on the issue.

The Prince George’s Senate delegation passed a bag-tax proposal last year that cleared the chamber in the final weeks of the assembly session, only to see it die in a House committee because of what Mr. Ross described as time constraints in the closing days.

Opponents of the tax say it will create an extra economic burden on residents and disproportionately hit low-income families who aren’t in the habit of using fabric, reusable bags.

“Clearly, a problem has been identified,” Delegate Melony G. Griffith, Prince George’s Democrat, said recently. “Members are just struggling with whether a bag tax is the solution.”

If the bill passes, it would allow the County Council to officially enact the tax and determine where revenues would go. There likely will be a push to dedicate all or most of the money to environment causes, as is the case in Montgomery County and the District.

The District, which passed its 5-cent bag tax in 2010, estimated last year that the tax generated $2.6 million in its first 16 months for environmental causes and education. They say 75 percent of residents polled say they now use fewer disposable bags because of the law.

Montgomery officials say their bag tax generated $154,000 in its first month, with the money slated to go to litter cleanup and environmental programs.