City Council Sounds Defiant While Bending to Pressure From Albany on Bag Fees

Councilman Brad Lander and Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito.

Councilman Brad Lander and Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito. (Photo: William Alatriste for NYC Council)

City Council leaders fiercely defended their plan to impose a five-cent fee on disposable shopping bags as they prepared today to vote on a measure that will postpone its implementation six months—a defensive effort to head off state legislation that would block any municipality in New York from enacting such a surcharge.

Addressing the press prior to this afternoon’s Council meeting, Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito seemed to avoid mentioning the proposal to punt the enactment from this October to next February when discussing the legislation up for a vote today. When reporters inquired about the measure, she acknowledged that the postponement is the product of a conversation she had with Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, who leads a conference largely opposed to the impost on paper and plastic pouches. But she denied that the Council was abandoning the original bill.

“It’s not a defeat,” she insisted, vowing to discuss the matter further with state legislators—but to protect the essential policy. “We’re proud of it, and obviously our interest is to keep it intact.”

Supporters of the extra expense argue bags clutter parks, cling to trees, accrue into islands in the world’s oceans, strangle marine life and cost the city some $12.5 million to dispose of annually. They assert that the fee with prompt New Yorkers to turn to reusable tote bags.

Opponents have objected that the extra nickel will go to store owners rather than the city, and assert that the cost will fall disproportionately on low-income consumers. Staten Island State Senator Diane Savino has repeatedly mocked the proposal as a “half-assed, feel-good, limousine liberal” approach to the problem, and suggested expanding recycling programs or banning carry-out bags entirely.

Mark-Viverito seemed to push back aggressively on that characterization today, pointing out that the Council debated the fees for more than two years. She also attempted to argue for her Council’s right to self-determination independent from the state.

“We are the legislative body of the City of New York. We are the ones that have been elected by our constituents here in the city to basically guide this body, right, to lead this Council,” she told the Observer. “So we would hope that the decision that we deliberate on, that took a lot of analysis and a lot of research—we don’t do things from one day to the next. We have a very open process in this Council, where we deliberate on issues.”

“Any sort of conversation that happens about ‘well, this was not well-thought out’—obviously is an insult to this legislation. We are very deliberative and we have great staff, we have great colleagues, and we do things in a very thoughtful way,” she continued. “We hope that that would be honored and that would be respected.”

Councilman Brad Lander—who sponsored and spearheaded the bag bill—denied the Council was giving ground at all. Instead he argued that the delay was necessary to avoid the passage of a last-minute anti-surcharge bill in Albany as the state legislative session came to an end last week.

“I actually think what we did here was bought time to implement this policy more effectively, and to spend time helping Albany understand why, after two and a half years, this is the thoughtful policy the city came to,” he told the Observer. “I’m optimistic that the bill will go into effect more or less as it is.”

Council members who initially voted against the bag fee bill when it passed last month were divided over the extension.

“I don’t want to be a party to this in any way, shape or form,” Queens Councilman Barry Grodenchik said, explaining his opposition to even the delay in implementation. “It would be better that it didn’t exist at all.”

Brooklyn Councilman Chaim Deutsch, however, said he would vote in favor of the delay in order to keep the burden of the surcharge off his constituents as long as possible.

“It gives relief til the Assembly and the Council come up with something that makes everybody happy. I’m totally against the bag tax,” he told the Observer, suggesting the two bodies launch a joint reusable bag giveaway instead of instituting a fee. “We should encourage people to use it, do more education and more outreach with people.”

City Council Sounds Defiant While Bending to Pressure From Albany on Bag Fees