WashPost Endorses Proposed Md. Bag Tax; Bill in Question Exempts Bags Used to Wrap Newspapers

The Washington Post editorial board today endorsed a plastic bag tax being considered in the Maryland General Assembly, insisting that the 5-cent excise tax will reduce plastic bag litter which clogs the state's streams and raise some "$7.3 million in revenue, a quarter of which would be retained by retail establishments like grocery stores." "It's a sensible measure that will help the environment -- if lawmakers have the spine to stand up to special interests," the paper huffed in its concluding line.

But what the Post failed to mention is that the bill, SB 576 -- entitled the Community Cleanup and Greening Act of 2013 -- specifically EXEMPTS plastic bags used to wrap newspapers, an exemption which obviously favors the Washington Post company:


(3)  (I) "DISPOSABLE CARRYOUT BAG" MEANS A PAPER OR PLASTIC BAG PROVIDED BY A STORE TO A CUSTOMER AT THE POINT OF SALE

       (II) “DISPOSABLE CARRYOUT BAG” DOES NOT INCLUDE

[...]

              2.  A BAG USED TO

[...]

                    E.   CONTAIN A NEWSPAPER OR DRY CLEANING;

What's more, the bag tax, as it only applies to retail locations, does not apply to the plastic sleeves which protect home-delivered newspapers from the elements. If the 5-cent tax were placed on such plastic sleeves, it would cost the Post $18.25/year in taxes on a year's worth of subscriptions. The Post could try to pass on those costs to subscribers, but that would be a hard sell given the paper's declining subscriber base. The paper needs every subscriber it can get, especially as a publicly-traded company that has shareholders' concerns to think about.

But of course, that's all academic because any bag tax bill passed in its present form would have a nifty little carve-out that benefits the newspaper industry.

This isn't the first time the Post has lobbied for a bag tax that exempts newspapers. From my March 17, 2010 blog post:

The Washington Post today called on Gov. Martin O'Malley (D-Md.) to push for and Maryland legislators to pass a plastic bag tax patterned after the District of Columbia's 5-cent-per-bag levy.

The Post couched the need for the tax in terms of safeguarding the health of the Chesapeake Bay -- much as the D.C. bag tax is purportedly earmarked for cleanup of the Anacostia River.

But curiously enough, plastic bags used to protect newspapers from the elements are exempt from taxation, both under the District law and in the Maryland legislation in question, a fact the Post didn't note in its editorial.

Sherry Schwechten with the public information office for the District Department of the Environment replied to a NewsBusters inquiry via email noting that "[p]lastic bags used solely to hold newspapers are exempt from the District's 5-cent bag fee." Schwechten also noted a few other exemptions, such as bags holding prescription drugs or dry cleaning. 

Indeed, because the 5-cent fee "is designed to cover disposable paper and plastic carryout bags you receive at the register to hold your purchases, in businesses that sell food or alcohol," no tax is levied on the plastic bags carrying newspapers to at-home Post subscribers.

If  that tax were levied on Post subscribers, it would add 35 cents per week to the cost of a subscriber who received the Post every day of the week. That's an additional $1.50 per month or $18.25 per year.

The proposed legislation before the Maryland General Assembly has similar exemptions to those in the D.C. law and also fails to levy a fee on plastic bags carrying newspapers for at-home delivery

If the Post really is as altruistically concerned with the environment as it claims, perhaps it should lobby the Maryland state legislature to remove the exemption which applies to newspapers and urge that the new bill also extend to plastic sleeves used for at-home newspaper delivery.

Something tells me that's not going to happen, however.

Ken Shepherd
Ken Shepherd
Ken Shepherd is the Managing Editor for NewsBusters