County council members and county executive staff on Monday argued over a proposed bag tax rollback that would exempt department stores and food take-out places from charging the 5-cent fee for plastic bags.
The bill, sponsored by Councilmembers Roger Berliner, Nancy Floreen, George Leventhal and Craig Rice, would maintain the bag tax at retail stores where food is more than 2 percent of annual sales. The bill is meant to maintain the tax at grocery stores and big box retailers that have grocery sections, such as Target.
County Executive Isiah Leggett and his Department of Environmental Protection say the tax, which went into effect Jan. 1, 2012, should be given more time before the county exempts certain retailers. Berliner says the fee, which generated more than double the anticipated amount of revenue in 2012, was never meant to create revenue, but rather to change behavior.
“I should have been more insistent on understanding why we were doing what we were doing,” Berliner said at an Environment Committee worksession on Monday. “No other jurisdiction that I’m aware of anywhere is as broad as we are.”
Department of Environmental Protection Director Bob Hoyt and Assistant Chief Administrative Officer Kathleen Boucher defended the law as is, saying a study with two years-worth of data on the tax could be done to see how the public views the fee and whether it is leading changes in shopping behavior.
Hoyt said the original tax included non-food retail stores on the recommendation of officials in D.C., where the city passed a measure that created confusion for retailers such as CVS and others that sold both food and non-food products.
“We don’t have evidence or data upon which to make these tweaks,” Boucher said. She added that Leggett does’t see the resentment Berliner has cited.
Berliner and Floreen voted to recommend the rollback for passage. Councilmember Hans Riemer, the third member of the Environment Committee, voted against recommendation. All three members agreed to add liquor stores to the definition of food stores so the tax would remain in effect there.
The worksession was contentious at times, with Floreen and Boucher attempting to talk over each other. Hoyt and Rice had similar exchanges in March, when the Committee first discussed the possibility of exempting some stores.
Much of the argument from both sides is based on anecdotal evidence. Floreen and Rice both talked about their personal shopping experiences. The county doesn’t have data on the number of bags from non-food stores have been found in streams, but has relied on testimony from environmental activists who clean up streams.
Using numbers from the first year of the bag tax, the county estimated a loss of 1.83 million in FY 2014 if non-food stores were exempt. But Council staff and council members doubted those numbers, which were calculated by looking at how much stores contributed toward the fee in the first year.
The county estimated the number of bags taxed would decrease by 38 percent, a number which Riemer said was too high.
The fee would still apply to non-food purchases in “food” stores.