Commentary Magazine


Montco’s Bag Law a Year On

It has now been more than a year since my adopted home of Montgomery County, Maryland instituted a bag tax to charge any shopper in the county at any store for the plastic or paper bags in which they cart away their groceries or any other goods. The stated goal of the bag law was to eliminate plastic bags clogging rivers and stuck in trees.

Late last month, the local paper—delivered without a subscription to my driveway in a plastic bag—reported on the “success” of the tax a year on:

Montgomery County’s controversial bag tax took in double the anticipated revenue in its first year and County Executive Isiah Leggett suspects out-of-county shoppers have something to do with it. County data shows the tax generated about $2 million through the end of November 2012 from taxing shoppers 5 cents for each carryout bag… Justified as a means to mitigating pollution from carryout bags, the tax went into effect in January 2012. The revenue goes to the county’s Water Quality Protection Charge Fund. Last year, Leggett said repeatedly that the county does not view the tax as a revenue stream for the Water Quality Protection Charge Fund, but rather a program to curtail waste and encourage the use of reusable bags. Anecdotally, he said, it is working to reduce waste. “We do see some improvements on streets and in streams,” he said. Leggett said he also sees shoppers toting their own reusable bags into stores.

What a sad indictment of government. When the tax was imposed, I speculated the action as more about money than litter. After all, we already have litter laws which target the guilty should county officers choose to impose them. Leggett may say with a nod and a wink the tax isn’t about money, but it’s the money the County tracks and, by admission and omission, it is clear that the county has no plan in place to determine—beyond the word of Leggett’s anecdotal observation—that the tax is doing anything to achieve its stated purpose. The County has collected $2 million and has no idea whether the tax has reduced litter.

And while Leggett seems to celebrate the benefits of sticking it to visitors unaware of the tax before they make the mistake of shopping in Montgomery County stores, the County appears to have little regard to the taste such nickel-and-diming leaves in the mouths of visitors, who can just as easily and perhaps more cheaply chose hotels and restaurants next door in Virginia.

Montgomery County may celebrate its $2 million windfall, but left unasked and therefore unanswered is what business the county might lose to more consumer-friendly countries like Arlington and Fairfax. With a 10-month-old baby whose diapers need attending and two cats whose litter needs scooping, plastic bags are valuable. Travel makes me a cat person, but my neighborhood is filled with dogs whose people use whatever bags they can get to clean up after their sometimes messy friends.

Except for small runs to pick up one or two groceries, we now take most of our shopping to Virginia. For a number of reasons, it’s wiser for anyone on a budget. I addressed this here, but with updated numbers, if only 1,000 county residents (out of nearly one million total) took $200 worth of shopping from Maryland to Virginia, then that offsets the county’s gain. Of course, Montgomery County doesn’t survey such numbers; they wouldn’t like the result and as far as a local government is concerned, it’s money in their pockets and not the health of local business that matters.

This doesn’t even begin to address the health aspects. All it will take is one salmonella death from an infested re-useable bag blamed by a sympathetic jury on the county, and we will all be paying the price. No metrics to determine the law’s success, no care about its impact on business, and no concern regarding unintended consequence, so long as the County can nickel and dime. Welcome to predatory government in action.