Monday, March 21, 2011

Op-ed Piece on Bag Tax

Check out my op-ed piece on the proposed bag tax in Sunday's Washington Post. For your convenience, I've included the text below:

A nickel-and-dime distraction from Montgomery’s real problems
By Nancy Floreen, Friday, March 18, 7:09 PM

If I believed taxing carryout bags in Montgomery County would improve local water quality and protect our waterways, I would be the first to sign on. But the five-cent tax on both paper and plastic bags proposed by County Executive Ike Leggett won’t save the Chesapeake Bay. What’s worse, it would have unintended consequences — some silly, some serious.

And if the tax wouldn’t save our streams, then it better save our equally stressed budget. But it wouldn’t do that, either. It would give Montgomery County residents nothing while leaving them, well, holding the bag.

A study by the Alice Ferguson Foundation, an environmental and education group working to clean up the Potomac River, showed a drop in bag use after the District’s bag tax went into effect last year, but it’s important to note that the effect on city waters has not yet been quantified; a reduction in bags does not necessarily mean a reduction in litter.

As a dog owner, I put my old grocery bags to good use a second time, and that makes me one of the 90 percent of consumers who reuse their grocery bags at least once. Taxing people who already exercise good judgment isn’t going to change the attitudes of rogue litterbugs.

My larger concern, though, is that this tax — which will come up for a public hearing on March 31 — is regressive, placing the heaviest burden on those with the lowest incomes. The added expense of paying the tax or buying reusable bags may not be much of a problem for the wealthy; not so for families already having a hard time making ends meet. I foresee scenes in which residents, perhaps senior citizens, overload their shopping bags to save money, only to spill groceries all over the sidewalk on the walk home. That’s not saving anybody’s environment.

And speaking of environments: The one inside a reusable bag is perfect for growing bacteria and cross-contaminating food, so if you opt against paying for disposable bags, you had better remember to wash your reusable ones. Do you really want to carry home unwashed chicken or seafood in a bag you might be carrying apples in later?

But most important, this proposal is a distraction from the fiscal crisis we must face right now. To literally nickel-and-dime residents this way might bring in $1.5 million in revenue under the best-case scenario, but that’s a drop in the bucket compared with the huge shortfall Montgomery County is confronting.

Don’t get me wrong. I have real concerns about the environment, and I agree we should look at viable solutions to our pollution problems. That might mean reexamining the Water Quality Protection Charge that residents already pay as a part of their property tax bill and which has a proven track record of success.

Right now, though, we need to focus our time and attention on how we can maintain needed services, treat employees fairly and invest in our future, all while slashing spending. That’s our real mandate.

I say, bag this tax.


Fritz Hirst said...

Councilmember Floreen- It is wonderful to see such thoughtful independence on the Council!

The bag tax is a fundamentally flawed idea. The vast majority of us are not litterbugs, yet the tax presumes that the public cannot be trusted to be responsible citizens. It puts trust in government, not people.

It's particularly troublesome that the Council could consider additional nuisance taxes as we are all being asked to do more with less. We must remain focused on fiscal responsibility!

Join the cause:

Anonymous said...

I am very disappointed in your Op-Ed piece (A nickel-and-dime distraction from Montgomery's real problems) and radio appearance on the bag tax. Your comments and attitude do not reflect the type of elected official I want working for Montgomery County's future. However, we can agree on 1 point you made on the radio show. I agree that all retailers should subject to the bag fee. Not just grocers.

In regards to unintended consequences, I have some comments:

1) When you mentioned "My larger concern, though, is that this tax -- which will come up for a public hearing on March 31 -- is regressive, placing the heaviest burden on those with the lowest incomes. The added expense of paying the tax or buying reusable bags may not be much of a problem for the wealthy; not so for families already having a hard time making ends meet."; this is already occurring. Most major grocers give a $0.05 discount for shoppers who use their own bags. Hence, from a business standpoint, low income and families (who you are assuming do not use reusable bags) are already paying the price. Businesses don't just offer discounts, prices have already likely been raised to account for the amount of discounts they already give on a periodic basis.

2) Sounds like personally you will not have bags to use to pick up your pet's excrement. We would all be better off if pet-owners purchased/used inexpensive, specially designed biodegradable bags for this anyway. But I guess that unfairly puts extra costs on pet owners who chose to own a pet in the first place. Which, by the way, is already something that is forced upon pet owners by the county (i.e. ordnance that dictates the proper removal of pet waste in public areas).

3) Your hint that adding it onto property taxes as a small component might be a solution. your are burdening property owners who already have suffered property tax burdens and asset value hits due to the housing bubble (vales have dropped, but property taxes were already billed on bad assessments due to the bubble; and tax assessments are not real-time, hence some property owners are still paying on inflated assessments). No to mention, this would affect low income folks as well - if we assume they rent homes/apartments. This would occur because increases to property taxes will translate into raised rents sooner or later.

Quite frankly, I think the only negative part of the $0.05 bag proposal is that it is called a "tax". Expenses and costs need to be cut, revenue for the local government is hard to find for sure; but not moving forward with a program that would improve outdoor aesthetics and the environment (well you would debate this) is not the type of thing to side-step to attack later in lieu of other "pork" programs that simply help folks get re-elected.

Geza Serenyi said...

I support the plastic bag tax as enacted in DC, but I really do not understand why the Montgomery County Council has passed a bag tax that is so much more oppressive. I plan on voting against each County Council Member who voted for this tax, and I have a huge amount of respect for Nancy Floreen for trying to add some common sense into this debate.