Legislators used a joint Assembly/State Senate hearing in Albany today to savage Mayor Bill de Blasio and the city’s plan to implement a nickel surcharge on disposable grocery bags next month.
The mayor clearly hoped to discuss his objections to Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s designs for reviving the controversial 421a tax credit for developers, for decreasing state outlays for disease control in the five boroughs and for raising the cap on the number of new charter schools and requiring the city to front the costs for them. But Brooklyn State Senator Simcha Felder had other ideas—and ripped into the city’s plans to implement the impost next month.
The legislator, who has sponsored a bill that would block the city from imposing such a fee, lashed out at de Blasio’s claims that the policy was necessary to reduce use of petroleum-based bags and ease the burden on the city’s landfills.
“Let me be clear: I think New Yorkers are tired of being insulted and lied to. The debate about the plastic bags—bag tax, fee, charge, whatever you want to call it—has nothing to do with whether people care or don’t care about the environment, or whether people care or don’t care about climate change,” Felder said angrily. “That’s the way things go regularly: if government doesn’t have a way to fix something—’no problem, tax.’ ‘No problem, fine.'”
“Let’s stop saying that the only way that you can protect the environment or address climate change is by taxing people,” he continued.
The state senator noted that the extra charge was originally supposed to go into effect last October. But—after “an overwhelming outcry of New Yorkers opposed being nickel and dimed and fined,” in Felder’s words—Albany pressured the city into postponing any enactment until February 15 of this year.
The purpose of this delay, Felder asserted, was for the city to amend the policy in some way. But it had not.
“It was common knowledge at the time that a commitment was made to the Assembly by you and the New York City Council, to use the five month intervening delay to make changes to the bag tax, and possibly work toward a better solution,” he said. “Neither your office nor the City Council tried at all to work out a solution or a compromise.”
“We’re now about two weeks away from a crisis facing average New Yorkers,” Felder said.
But de Blasio insisted that the bag fees are a vitally urgent measure needed to prevent climate change, especially since President Donald Trump based his campaign in part on denial that the phenomenon exists. He noted that plastic bags are a technological innovation that became widespread in the second half of the 20th Century, and that previous generations relied on reusable satchels.
He also pointed out that the bag fee legislation calls for free distribution of nondisposable tote bags, and for a campaign of public education.
“Our city, our state, our nation, we are so far behind right now where we need to be to protect our Earth, and it’s going to have devastating impacts if we don’t address it on all levels,” the mayor said. “We must do this, and we have now even more urgency because we don’t know if the federal government is going to take a step backwards in terms of addressing climate change.”
But Felder reacted to de Blasio’s rebuttal with outrage. The state senator broke out a carton of eggs and a loaf of bread to illustrate the current cost of basic food items, and described witnessing a constituent unable to afford cheese at a store.
“Obviously the mayor didn’t hear anything I said. Because the first thing I said is that we’re not debating whether to address climate change, or whether to address the environment,” he said. “I’m not talking about that. I’m talking about regular New Yorkers, and why the city always has to be punitive. It’s just not fair.”
As an alternative, the lawmakers suggested the city instead pay New Yorkers a nickel for every bag they don’t use, though he did not explain how such an initiative would work. Felder, a nominal Democrat, wields outsized influence in the State Senate: his decision to caucus with the GOP for the fourth year in a row furnished them with a one-seat majority, and enabled them to continue to control the chamber.
Two Democratic Assembly members at the hearing took a somewhat more diplomatic approach. Bronx Assemblyman Michael Benedetto suggested again punting the implementation date so as to allow the State Legislature to discuss other possible solutions—such as a recycling program.
“While we understand the environmental concerns and the reasons for it, we—or at least many of us in the Assembly—have concerns with that, the cost it’s going to be for some of the people who are rather challenged financially in this City of New York,” Benedetto said. “We would like to see possibly a postponement in that bag tax, so that we can have hearings on it, possibly develop a, an alternative recycling program just for such plastic bags.”
Similarly, Staten Island Assemblyman Michael Cusick—who has sponsored a counterpart bill to Felder’s in the lower house of the legislature—suggested examining “other alternatives” before moving forward with the surcharge.
De Blasio maintained that a recycling program would not fully address the issue, as many people would not participate. In fact, current law already requires large retailers to have bins on site for collecting carryout sacks, though not all stores are compliant.
“We all face the immense challenge of an Earth in crisis, because of climate change and environmental degradation. We have to stop taking plastic bags made with petroleum products—so they’re right there, fossil fuels hurting our environment, exaggerating climate change further because it’s fossil fuels, and then adding to our landfills, which is bad for the Earth and costs taxpayers money,” de Blasio insisted. “This is the right thing to do, to break with the status quo we’re in right now. Plastic bags no longer have a place in our lives.”
But at least one lawmaker spoke in support of the fee: Brooklyn Assemblyman Robert Carroll, who brought his reusable back to the hearing.