Governor Andrew Cuomo on Tuesday signed legislation forbidding New York City from instituting a five cent fee on plastic shopping bags, placing the final nail in the coffin of a City Council attempt to reduce the use of the non-recyclable bags.
The anti-anti-plastic bag bill, which passed the State Assembly last week by a lopsided 122-15 vote, was the latest rebuke to city government, which has been persistently tormented by state government.
Cuomo explained his decision in a meandering statement that began with the following soliloquy on the state's environmental history:
New York State has proudly led this nation's environmental movement from its inception, fostering the early conservationist principles of Theodore Roosevelt, and birthing modern environmentalism at Storm King. Today, we are leading once again with the highest renewable energy standard in the nation, and in the development of off-shore wind and solar power; we are protecting the State's precious natural resources like the Hudson River and the Adirondack Park; we are dedicating billions of dollars to ensuring clean drinking water for all New Yorkers; and after decades of discussion, we have finally made an agreement to close the Indian Point nuclear power plant. Combined, all of these policies lead the way in protecting New York's air, land, and water.
Cuomo's primary stated objection to the bill was that it directed the five cent fee to merchants, an arrangement Cuomo said would yield an "unjustifiable and unnecessary" profit for private enterprise.
"There are two possible rationales for New York City's bill providing the fee to profit the merchants: political expediency or legal impossibility. If the council needed the political support of the merchants to pass the bill, a $100 million price was too high a cost to pay," he stated. If the city was not empowered to allow a fee to go to a government entity as it exceeds their legal authority, then that necessitates state action." (Directing a fee toward a government entity is longhand for taxation and the City Council is not empowered to levy taxes without state approval).
That state action, he said, would come in the form of a statewide plastic bag task force, which will develop a "uniform State plan for addressing the plastic bag problem." Cuomo said the task force will issue its recommendations by the end of 2017.
Council Member Brad Lander, who has championed the plastic bag legislation, blasted the state action on the bill, noting that the City Council had repeatedly sought permission from the state to structure the fee as a tax.
"It is completely false that it was done for political purposes. We asked the state to give us the authorization, the state failed to," Lander told Gothamist. "To use that as a justification to kill the bill is the height of chutzpah."
Roses are red.
Plastic bags are white.
9 billion more,
— Brad Lander (@bradlander) February 15, 2017
Lander and Council Member Margaret Chin, another major backer of the bill, issued a statement Tuesday (featuring a number of somewhat painful puns and a Clash reference) criticizing the law. "We fought plastic bags, and for now, plastic bags won. They are stubborn and toxic forms of solid waste. They never biodegrade, so they pollute our trees, oceans, and landfills forever,” they said. "And they are hard to dislodge from the State Legislature, too."
The City Council bill included a number of exemptions for the fee. Bags used to keep raw meat separate from other food would not have been included and shoppers using SNAP or WIC would not have been required to pay.
The city tears through almost 10 billion bags a year, which end up in landfills and oceans, get stuck in storm drains and trees, and serve as a painful reminder of our capacity for unnecessary waste. The bill's backers had estimated it would cut bag usage by 60 percent and save $12.5 million in sanitation fees each year.
"The fee works very well to get people to use reusable bags," Lander said, pointing to a similar policy in place in Washington DC that has radically cut plastic bag use. "Overwhelming evidence shows that they will switch."
The state law is a one-year moratorium, so the City Council could potentially take the bag bill up again next year.
"Some day, we need a statewide plastic bag policy. We should have a city one today and obviously I'm deeply disappointed," Lander said. "One thing I will say, maybe we can call it a 'plastic lining,' is we have elevated this issue in a far bigger way than we expected or certainly anyone expected."