Berliner Agrees To Table Bag Tax Changes

County Councilman Roger BerlinerCouncilmember Roger Berliner on Wednesday said he will table a bill that would have limited the scope of the county’s 5-cent fee for bags at retail stores.

Berliner (D-Bethesda-Chevy Chase), who said he erred in his support of the original law that went into effect Jan. 1, 2012, wrote to County Executive Isiah Leggett saying he will wait until the county staff can do a more thorough study on the law’s effects.

Berliner and three co-sponsors — Nancy Floreen, George Leventhal and Craig Rice — wanted to narrow the scope of the tax to stores that had grocery components or sold alcohol, similar to bag tax measures in other jurisdictions.

After months of back-and-forth with Leggett’s staff and staff in the county’s Department of Environmental Protection, Berliner wrote he will trust the county to come up with a more comprehensive two-year study of the tax by mid-2014:

 I appreciate your assurance that you are in fact willing to reassess the scope of our law, but that you believe we should have the benefit of two years of operation, a survey, and more data before doing so.

I have conferred with my cosponsors and, based on your representations, we will not move forward with further legislative action until we have the benefit of additional time, study, and data.  Accordingly, I have requested that the Council President and Vice President not schedule full Council deliberation on Bill 10-13 until further notice.

I would request that the data and focus of further surveys be directed towards the fundamental issue raised by Bill 10-13, i.e., not the efficacy of the bag tax generally but rather its scope.  There is broad agreement on the benefits of the tax as adopted by the District of Columbia.  That is not what needs further analysis.

Any future survey and analysis should explore the effectiveness of the tax in changing behavior as it relates to department stores, clothing stores, hair salons, and other retail establishments that were not included in either the District of Columbia’s law or any other jurisdiction in the country that applies such a tax.

While I personally believe that there are times when we can rely upon common sense as opposed to data, there is no question that more data is better than less if we are to make educated decisions with regard to this matter.  If the data demonstrates that the legislation has resulted in a statistically significant reduction in the use of disposable bags in such establishments, that fact would be a very important consideration in our deliberations.

Bob Hoyt, director of the Department of Environmental Protection, said the county designed the tax to cover purchases made at non-food stores on the recommendation of those in D.C. government, who had previously passed a bag tax they said caused confusion for retailers that sell some food.

At a testy Council Committee worksession on Monday, Hoyt said the county needs more time to see if the tax is truly encouraging shoppers to ditch polluting plastic bags in favor of reuseable ones.

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