On Wednesday, a preliminary vote on the Prince George’s County disposable bag fee failed to move the measure forward. The Washington Post’s article explained many of the dynamics, but the headline suggested the bill was dead. It’s not, but it needs residents’ help to pass.
Unlike in Montgomery County, where a 5¢ fee began last month on plastic and paper shopping bags much like the one in DC, Prince George’s County (and almost all other Maryland jurisdictions) needs permission from the General Assembly to enact certain taxes and fees. Bill PG 402-12, sponsored by Senator Paul Pinsky (D-District 22) and Delegate Barbara Frush (D-District 21), would give the county that authority for a bag fee.
"Local bills” like this one, which apply just to a single county, go through a different and much more complicated process than regular bills. A small committee of the county’s legislative delegation, the County Affairs Committee, first discusses the bill, which happened Wednesday.
This committee voted 3-2 in support. Unfortunately, a bill needs 4 votes to earn a “favorable” rating from the committee—and that is how it “lost.” But the committee can reconsider the bill if it wants, or the full county delegation of 24 delegates can take up the bill without a favorable report from the committee. If it’s going to move forward any further, though, residents of Prince George’s County need to contact their delegates now.
The plastics industry is paying for hundreds of robocalls, giving legislators the impression that there is strong public opposition. Supportive county residents and workers need to call and email and have their voices heard.
All Prince George’s delegates are important, but one particularly important vote is Delegate Veronica Turner (District 26). She is a member of the County Affairs Committee, but was absent the day of the vote.
As DC has seen over the last 2 years, making the cost of single-use bags transparent by charging a nickel for them is a powerful motivator to switch to reusable bags. Three-quarters of DC residents say they have reduced their use of plastic bags, and businesses large and small have saved thousands of dollars by not having to buy as many bags.
Volunteers are picking up fewer bags during river cleanups, and grant money is flowing to green businesses and nonprofit organizations (including mine) that work to restore the Anacostia River, creating jobs. Low-income residents have received thousands of free reusable bags.
DC Councilmember Tommy Wells authored the bag fee as a step toward removing trash from the Anacostia River. But 50% of the river’s watershed is in Prince George’s County, making county the most important piece of the restoration puzzle.
Prince George’s County spends $2.5 million each year picking up litter, and with new limits on trash pollution in the Anacostia River, the public expense is only going to go up. Shoppers pay more for food and other products because retailers add the cost of those “free” bags to prices—as much as $37.50 per year for the average shopper. There is no such thing as a free bag.
Finally, it’s a matter of home rule. The County Council voted 8-0, with one abstention, to endorse PG 402-12. County Executive Rushern Baker has taken this campaign on as a personal project. If county leaders want to proactively address an environmental problem, why should the General Assembly interfere?