February 15th, 2017
by JESSE McKINLEY
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo signed a bill on Tuesday effectively killing a law that would have imposed a 5-cent fee on plastic bags in New York City, disappointing environmentalists as well as city leaders who characterized the move as a classic case of Albany’s overreach.
Mr. Cuomo, a Democrat, acted just a day before the fee was supposed to go into effect, essentially supporting actions by the Republican-led State Senate and the Democrat-dominated Assembly to stifle the new law.
In its place, the governor promised to form “a statewide task force to develop a uniform state plan for addressing the plastic bag problem,” complete with local leaders, other stakeholders and leaders appointed by the Senate and the Assembly.
Mr. Cuomo said the city law was “deeply flawed” because it allowed merchants to keep the 5-cent fee as profit, a giveaway that he said would total $100 million a year.
“I understand the political process to pass a bill can require placating potential opposition, but a $100 million bonus to private companies is beyond the absurd,” he said in a statement.
Still, the uncomfortable bind the governor put himself in was evident in both the breadth of his statement — laying out his rationale in nearly 1,000 words — as well as its timing, late in the day as the Legislature left Albany for a two-week break.
On one side were environmentalists who were eager to see New York City embrace a policy that they believe would help stem the unsightly spread of plastic bags and deal a blow to the petroleum and plastics industry, a major culprit in pollution worldwide.
On the other side was the State Legislature, which had framed the bag tax as a bad solution, most likely to end up as a regressive tax on poor consumers for whom the convenience of plastic was a plus and everyday practicality.
In the end, Mr. Cuomo seemed to side with that argument, noting that the New York City Council had only narrowly passed the bill, and that their state counterparts had overwhelmingly voted to impose a moratorium on it.
Still, the act of an Albany official nullifying an act of city democracy annoyed and disappointed the bill’s sponsors.
“We fought plastic bags, and for now, plastic bags won,” City Council members Brad Lander and Margaret Chin said in a joint statement, adding that plastic bags are slow to biodegrade and are stubborn pollutants.
The rejection — and the expected backlash by environmental advocates — seemed to be sensed in Albany, where lawmakers were offering new plans even before the governor acted. On Tuesday afternoon, Assemblyman Luis R. Sepúlveda, a Bronx Democrat, unveiled a plan to offer a sales-tax refund of 3 cents per bag to encourage consumers to bring reusable totes.
“A 5-cent tax is a burden on many of our poor people and many of our seniors,” Mr. Sepúlveda said. “And so we’re trying to offering sensible legislation that’s not going impact these communities.”
Mr. Sepúlveda also suggested forming a commission to study the problem — a strategy that has been used by the governor with varying degrees of success during his six-plus years in office.
In this case, the governor said the task force “will be different than usual as this matter requires expeditious action,” though details about its exact composition were scant. Mr. Cuomo set an end-of-year deadline for a report and proposed legislation.
“I look forward to New York State leading the way on this issue,” he said.