Commentary Magazine


Topic: Montgomery County

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.

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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.

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Do Bag Laws Make Sense?

When I got married a few years back, I had wanted to stay in Virginia—where taxes were lower—but my wife wanted to live in Maryland, and so we compromised and moved to Maryland. Montgomery County, Maryland, is Democrat country. Lawn signs proliferate but, like elections in Cuba, they are all for a single party. Still, despite the high taxes and looming pension crisis, the school system is good and I figured, how much harm could a county government do? A lot, it seems. With little debate and even less coverage, Montgomery County passed a law to discourage disposable bags by imposing a 5 cent charge for each plastic or paper bag used. The charge applies not only in supermarkets, but in all stores: Home Depot? Bag charge. Bed, Bath, and Beyond? Bag Charge. Barnes and Noble? Bag charge. Take-out Chinese food? Bag charge.

While county officials justify the bag tax in kindergarten environmentalism, this is nonsense. Most bag users do not litter and there are laws with hefty fines on the books for those who do. Stores provide bags because they are convenient and they encourage shopping, and most consumers recycle them at home. I use the plastic bags for trashcan liners and also to clean up after Neocatservative, our feline armchair warrior.

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When I got married a few years back, I had wanted to stay in Virginia—where taxes were lower—but my wife wanted to live in Maryland, and so we compromised and moved to Maryland. Montgomery County, Maryland, is Democrat country. Lawn signs proliferate but, like elections in Cuba, they are all for a single party. Still, despite the high taxes and looming pension crisis, the school system is good and I figured, how much harm could a county government do? A lot, it seems. With little debate and even less coverage, Montgomery County passed a law to discourage disposable bags by imposing a 5 cent charge for each plastic or paper bag used. The charge applies not only in supermarkets, but in all stores: Home Depot? Bag charge. Bed, Bath, and Beyond? Bag Charge. Barnes and Noble? Bag charge. Take-out Chinese food? Bag charge.

While county officials justify the bag tax in kindergarten environmentalism, this is nonsense. Most bag users do not litter and there are laws with hefty fines on the books for those who do. Stores provide bags because they are convenient and they encourage shopping, and most consumers recycle them at home. I use the plastic bags for trashcan liners and also to clean up after Neocatservative, our feline armchair warrior.

Government has become predatory, and the fees add up. According to an Associated Press report, county officials raised $154,000 in the first month. With the lack of inquisitiveness only reporters can muster, however, no journalist has asked what the price to business has been. While I still go to the local supermarket if I run out of milk or my pregnant wife demands pomegranates, these I can carry out without a bag. For most of our shopping, however, my wife and I now drive to Virginia where groceries and others goods are usually cheaper. We’re not profligate spenders, but l would estimate that we shifted perhaps $200 worth of food and retail shopping from Montgomery Country, Maryland to Virginia in January.

Now, Montgomery County has around 972,000 residents, 24 percent of whom are under 18 years old, leaving 738,720 adults. If each adult took $100 shopping into a neighboring county, that would mean a loss to county businesses of $73,872,000. Now, obviously not every adult is mobile or motivated enough to shift their shopping pattern. But, if the bag tax is enough to send only 1,540 county adults—a mere 0.21 percent of county adults—into Fairfax, Virginia, or a neighboring Maryland county—then it is obvious that local business will lose. For the county, the bag law might make cents, but for businesses and residents, it makes no sense.

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Consistently Rotten Results

You have to give the Obami credit. They have doggedly applied their engagement tactic to a variety of regimes – and gotten remarkably similar results. It so happens that the result has been to embolden our adversaries. In response to our efforts to ingratiate ourselves with the mullahs and pipe down about democracy, we have been scorned and snubbed. In response to our decision to redeploy our ambassador to Syria, Bashar al-Assad has moved ever closer to Iran and joined in the pummeling of the U.S. In response to our suck-uppery, the Chinese have become ever bolder, continuing their opposition to sanctions and their despotic treatment of dissidents. The same is true, we now learn, of Burma.

This report explains:

The Obama administration, concerned that Burma is expanding its military relationship with North Korea, has launched an aggressive campaign to persuade Burma’s junta to stop buying North Korean military technology, U.S. officials said.

Concerns about the relationship — which encompass the sale of small arms, missile components and technology possibly related to nuclear weapons — in part prompted the Obama administration in October to end the George W. Bush-era policy of isolating the military junta, said a senior State Department official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject.

But we’ve been having meetings with them and engaging them! Some now fret that this is getting us nowhere:

Congress and human rights organizations are increasingly criticizing and questioning the administration’s new policy toward the Southeast Asian nation, which is also known as Myanmar. Rep. Howard L. Berman (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs and generally a supporter of the administration’s foreign policy, recently called for the administration to increase the pressure on Burma, including tightening sanctions on the regime.

“Recent events have raised the profile of humanitarian issues there,” Berman said Friday. “Support is growing for more action in addition to ongoing efforts.”

There is good reason to conclude that things are moving in the wrong direction. (“On Feb. 10, a Burmese court sentenced a naturalized Burmese American political activist from Montgomery County to three years of hard labor; he was allegedly beaten, denied food and water, and placed in isolation in a tiny cell with no toilet. Burma recently snubbed the United Nations’ special envoy on human rights, Tomás Ojea Quintana, denying him a meeting with Suu Kyi and access to Burma’s senior leadership.”) As one expert succinctly put it, “The bad behavior has increased.”

This will no doubt disappoint Sen. Jim Webb, who has been leading the charge to lessen Burma’s “isolation.” As the report notes, “Webb’s trip to Burma in August — the first by a member of Congress in a decade — has been credited with giving the Obama administration the political cover to open up talks with the junta.” Credited, indeed.

The Obami conclude from all of this that they must redouble their efforts — engage more! They seem never to learn from experience — never to examine the motives and conduct of our foes as a means of assessing whether our policies are working. For a group that declared ideology to be “so yesterday,” they seem to be trapped in the the grips of their own. They are convinced that despotic regimes will respond to unilateral gestures and American obsequiousness. Repeated failure seems not to impact their analysis. Too bad there aren’t any realists to be found.

You have to give the Obami credit. They have doggedly applied their engagement tactic to a variety of regimes – and gotten remarkably similar results. It so happens that the result has been to embolden our adversaries. In response to our efforts to ingratiate ourselves with the mullahs and pipe down about democracy, we have been scorned and snubbed. In response to our decision to redeploy our ambassador to Syria, Bashar al-Assad has moved ever closer to Iran and joined in the pummeling of the U.S. In response to our suck-uppery, the Chinese have become ever bolder, continuing their opposition to sanctions and their despotic treatment of dissidents. The same is true, we now learn, of Burma.

This report explains:

The Obama administration, concerned that Burma is expanding its military relationship with North Korea, has launched an aggressive campaign to persuade Burma’s junta to stop buying North Korean military technology, U.S. officials said.

Concerns about the relationship — which encompass the sale of small arms, missile components and technology possibly related to nuclear weapons — in part prompted the Obama administration in October to end the George W. Bush-era policy of isolating the military junta, said a senior State Department official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject.

But we’ve been having meetings with them and engaging them! Some now fret that this is getting us nowhere:

Congress and human rights organizations are increasingly criticizing and questioning the administration’s new policy toward the Southeast Asian nation, which is also known as Myanmar. Rep. Howard L. Berman (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs and generally a supporter of the administration’s foreign policy, recently called for the administration to increase the pressure on Burma, including tightening sanctions on the regime.

“Recent events have raised the profile of humanitarian issues there,” Berman said Friday. “Support is growing for more action in addition to ongoing efforts.”

There is good reason to conclude that things are moving in the wrong direction. (“On Feb. 10, a Burmese court sentenced a naturalized Burmese American political activist from Montgomery County to three years of hard labor; he was allegedly beaten, denied food and water, and placed in isolation in a tiny cell with no toilet. Burma recently snubbed the United Nations’ special envoy on human rights, Tomás Ojea Quintana, denying him a meeting with Suu Kyi and access to Burma’s senior leadership.”) As one expert succinctly put it, “The bad behavior has increased.”

This will no doubt disappoint Sen. Jim Webb, who has been leading the charge to lessen Burma’s “isolation.” As the report notes, “Webb’s trip to Burma in August — the first by a member of Congress in a decade — has been credited with giving the Obama administration the political cover to open up talks with the junta.” Credited, indeed.

The Obami conclude from all of this that they must redouble their efforts — engage more! They seem never to learn from experience — never to examine the motives and conduct of our foes as a means of assessing whether our policies are working. For a group that declared ideology to be “so yesterday,” they seem to be trapped in the the grips of their own. They are convinced that despotic regimes will respond to unilateral gestures and American obsequiousness. Repeated failure seems not to impact their analysis. Too bad there aren’t any realists to be found.

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