Thursday, April 24, 2014 5:58 AM
Published on: Friday, November 15, 2013
By Holden Wilen
ROCKVILLE – Last week Montgomery County Councilman Roger Berliner urged the council to move forward with a bill to reform the county’s bag tax law. Now, at the request of County Executive Ike Leggett, Berliner is holding off on the bill until 2014 in order to “reach a common ground.”
At a Nov. 4 meeting of the council’s Transportation, Infrastructure, Energy and Environment Committee, Berliner said he has observed resentment from county residents toward the bag tax because of its broad reach, which requires the 5-cent tax to all plastic bags to be applied not only to grocery stores but to retail and department stores as well.
The meeting resulted in the committee giving a favorable report for a bill cosponsored by Berliner and Councilmembers Nancy Floreen, George Leventhal and Craig Rice, which would restrict the tax to establishments where more than two percent of sales come from food and alcohol, despite requests from representatives of Leggett’s office asking the committee to wait for more data.
Two days later, on Wednesday, Berliner sent a letter to Leggett agreeing to wait until 2014 to move forward with the bill. Berliner attributed his change of heart to a phone call from Leggett Tuesday night.
“(Leggett) shared with me his willingness to look at the issue with an open mind and that he was not saying he would not make modifications, but that he would greatly prefer a little more time and a little more data and then forward his recommendations early fall,” Berliner said. “I had to ask myself, not withstanding my own strong views, was there an urgency in acting in this moment or could I accommodate the county executive’s request taking at face value his commitment to being open to making modifications that would conform this to D.C. law?... This was one of those times I could accommodate the county executive and take him at his word and work with him.”
County spokesman Patrick Lacefield said he has not observed the resentment Berliner claims to have seen. In last six months, he said, he has only received one letter opposing the bag tax. He said Leggett does not want to change the law because department store bags show up in streams as well, and the law is working.
“It doesn’t seem broke, so why fix it?” Lacefield said. “Any changes (in the law) will just confuse people and incur more costs for businesses. Let’s give it a little more time.”
Berliner said he continues to observe resentment but wants to work, not fight, with Leggett. Regardless of what Leggett decides, Berliner said he plans to move forward with the proposed changes next year.
“I conferred with my colleagues and we were all of a similar mind of let’s see if (Leggett) comes on board and then we would not be fighting as much as working with him. Generally it is better to be working with people than fighting them. This was a time where I thought I could search for common ground with the county executive.”
Critics of the bag tax say its purpose is to bring in additional revenue for the county. According to the county’s finance department total revenue for the first year of the bag tax totaled $2.39 million for 59.7 million bags. The county had projected revenue to top out at $1 million.
So far this year, collections have totaled $389,000 for 9.73 million bags in July and August, compared to $375,500 for 9.39 million bags last year. According to the county 1,119 vendors reported collections in August 2013, compared to 928 vendors last year. Vendors are required to report their collections when they hit the $100 threshold.
If the county council waits until September 2014 to make a change, it will allow the county to collect another full year’s worth of revenue while allowing the council to change the law before the election in November.
Berliner said his decision to wait has nothing to do with money but is instead about cooperating with Leggett.
“I ultimately decided I would accommodate the county executive, search for common ground and then if we are not able to do find common ground we will move forward as previously indicated,” Berliner said. “This is only putting a pause button on. I think it is fundamentally different. I am not going to change my view with respect to this, but I am going to put the pause button on in the hopes that we can find common ground.”
As for whether money played a role in Leggett’s desire to wait to change the law, Lacefield said much like Berliner, the desire has nothing to do with money.
“We look forward to a time where we take in no money from the tax. That is our goal, that people use reusable bags and do not pay the five cents,” Lacefield said. “If somebody wants to stick it to the county on the bag law there is a great way for them to do it—use reusable bags because then you will be denying the county five cents.”
At the T&E committee meeting last week, Berliner said he would support a ban on plastic bags if Leggett proposed it. When asked why he does not just propose a bill himself to ban plastic bags, Berliner said he has been so wrapped up in the tax approach he never stepped back to think about.
At this point, Berliner wants to change the current law because he thinks it can be better. While banning plastic bags is worthy of consideration, Berliner said, he is not prepared to propose the change.
Lacefield said Leggett prefers not to ban plastic bags because he wants to give county residents a choice.
“We want people to use fewer bags but we also want people to be able to make choices for themselves. If they decide they want to keep doing business the way they are that is fine, it is a nickel. If they don’t and want to change to reusable bags, then that is fine too,” Lacefield said. “Trust me, if we ban the plastic bags we would begin to get mail. There would be much more brouhaha about banning them, frankly.”