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Exemptions proposed to Montgomery County's bag tax

Wednesday - 6/19/2013, 4:44am  ET

WASHINGTON - Nearly a year and a half after Montgomery County's 5-cent bag tax took effect, a public hearing was held Tuesday night to consider possible tweaks.

A bill being considered by the Montgomery County Council would scale back the tax so it only applies to food stores. A food store would be defined as any retail store where food makes up more than 2 percent of gross sales by dollar value.

The bill would make takeout food bags exempt from the tax.

Councilmember Roger Berliner, one of the sponsors of the bill, said the bag tax is effectively changing people's behavior at grocery stores.

"You see how many people are taking reusable bags into the stores. It works there, and it is those bags that represent the overwhelming proportion of plastic bags that we find in our streams.

"I don't think it is working at department stores or that it will work at department stores, and I don't think the evidence supports that our streams are significantly threatened by bags from department stores and other retail establishments," said Berliner at the hearing.

"Instead of shifting consciousness in a positive way, applying the tax at department stores and other retail establishments makes people resentment of government."

Berliner says some county businesses are complaining about the bag tax.

"We have heard from retailers about increased shoplifting and increased costs associated with security. If the costs were justified by the environmental gains, it arguably would be worth it. But again in my experience, you simply don't see bags from a Nordstrom in our streams," Berliner said.

Ginanne Italiano with the Greater Bethesda-Chevy Chase Chamber of Commerce says reusable bags contribute to shoplifting.

She recounted what one business owner told the chamber.

"We have caught people red handed walking out of the store without having paid first," she said.

Others say some people are shopping outside the county to avoid the tax, but quite a few people who spoke out at the hearing want the bag tax to stay as-is.

"We urge council to silence the critics and provide the leadership necessary to stay the course," said Bob Hoyt, director of the Montgomery County Department of Environmental Protection.

"Do we really think Mr. 'GotALotABucks' is not going to purchase a new shirt because of the nickel tax?" asked Frances Maane.

"I think we're quibbling about 5 cents. I mean, what can you buy for 5 cents? You can't buy a gumball anymore," said Jim Farey.

Resident Bill Kominers opposes the bag tax and used rhyme to deliver some of his remarks.

"Each store I use must find it queer when I spurn a bag for goods so dear, but a nickel seems a lot to pay for a paper bag to take them away."

Montgomery County Council's Transportation, Infrastructure, Energy and Environment Committee is tentatively scheduled to hold a work session on this issue July 8.

Take a look at the proposed changes to the bill:

Maryland bag tax

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