A Heastie decision on plastic bag fees

Blog from Crain’s New York:

By Eric Engquist

So much for a new Albany.

While state Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie have so far avoided the corruption scandals of their convicted predecessors Dean Skelos and Sheldon Silver, the state Legislature has made little progress in the way of good government, judging from its passage of a bill nullifying New York City’s 5-cent fee on some disposable shopping bags.

The measures were passed just before the city’s law was to take effect next week, without so much as a hearing, which would have brought impassioned testimony from environmentalists who view a fee as the best way to cure New Yorkers’ addiction to disposable bags.

Hearings might also have revealed a lack of grassroots opposition to the fee, which has been most actively targeted by the deep-pocketed plastic-bag industry.

Heastie had said last week that the Assembly would block the city’s law because of feedback he had received from New Yorkers, but his office has not complied with a request from Crain’s to detail that opposition. Elected officials track constituents’ calls and correspondence on controversial issues; Heastie’s failure to produce the data raises the possibility that the objections were not as numerous as he claimed.

Heastie’s other rationales for nullifying the city’s bag fee (which will still take effect if Gov. Andrew Cuomo vetoes the Legislature’s bill) also don’t compute. He said the bill “mandates that stores could charge any amount for carryout bags, starting at 5 cents,” which is an oxymoron: A mandate is a requirement, not a choice. What the city’s law mandates is that stores charge at least 5 cents per single-use bag for purchases not made with food stamps. It allows (not mandates) higher charges so stores can sell sturdier, reusable bags for more than a nickel.

What’s even more disingenuous about Heastie’s claim is that stores are already allowed to charge any amount for carryout bags. The city’s law does not change that. Heastie’s spokeswoman did not explain why retailers would start charging more than 5 cents for bags when they don’t do so today, nor did she say if retailers have done so in any other jurisdiction with a bag fee.

The Assembly speaker’s assertion that the fee could hurt the “working poor” did not mention that food-stamp purchases are exempt from the fee. Households with income up to 130% of the federal poverty level are eligible for food stamps. It also did not explain why he thinks poor people would not learn to bring reusable bags to avoid the fee.

Crain’s also asked why, if “it makes sense to press the pause button on this fee in order to do a more thorough investigation on the best ways to reduce paper and plastic waste,” as Heastie put it, he only stopped the city’s fee and not those in effect on Long Island. There was no response as of Tuesday evening from Heastie. Nor did he say why the city’s two-year investigation was insufficient, or why Albany did not do its own investigation in the many months since the city’s bill passed.

Environmental groups are pleading with Cuomo to veto the state bill and let the bag fee stand. The fee’s City Council sponsors have taken a more wishy-washy approach, offering to negotiate a compromise, which they have already done twice (once to get the bill through the council and once to persuade Albany not to kill the bill last spring).

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