Gotham Gazette http://www.gothamgazette.com/component/tags/tag/593 Mon, 18 Dec 2017 22:35:29 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb webmaster@gothamgazette.com (Webmaster) State Legislators from New York City Should Not Be Bagging the Bag Fee http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6748:state-legislators-from-new-york-city-should-not-be-bagging-the-bag-fee http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6748:state-legislators-from-new-york-city-should-not-be-bagging-the-bag-fee plastic bag rally

Elected officials and advocates rally outside City Hall (photo: @bradlander)


New York City is trying to do something about plastic bags, but my state Assemblymember is attempting to undermine the city’s ability to do so. He, along with many of his NYC-based colleagues, are acting against their own constituents’ interests. This is a normal New York State versus City story, but in a moment where the stakes of politics are high because the federal government’s threats are real, this battle between city and state feels more offensive and disheartening than ever.

The story today is that New York City passed a law last year that requires most shops to charge a five cent fee for each carryout bag a person takes when shopping. However, in January, the state Senate passed a bill to say, “Sorry New York City, we don’t like that bill so we’re going to kill it.” The state Assembly, rather than deny the Senate outright, chose to punt and delay the implementation of the city’s law for one year. As of publication, Albany’s compromise would require a new City Council to vote on the carryout bag fee a second time, after different Council members are elected for a 2018 term.

The state Legislature's actions are a structural problem, a political problem, and a problem of spirit in these times.

Structural problem: The state constitution has a problem, because it does not stop the state Legislature from having so much influence over the way the city governs itself. Even though the state constitution provides us the right to make our own laws through the so-called home rule provision, the Legislature is very good at getting around it. Lawmakers often use the language, “In cities with a population of more than one million...” as the preamble to a law intended to impact one city. There is only one city in this state that falls into the category of more than a million people. Although this current block of the bag bill might not be constitutional, the state Legislature knows they have a lot of precedent telling them that they might be able to do this. We could change the state constitution to protect the city’s home rule powers, but not with the Legislature guarding this power so jealously.

Political problem: The state Senate is very confusing. There are more Democrats than Republicans, by one senator. That senator, a Democrat named Simcha Felder, spends his time with the Republicans and does not work with the Democrats. He is proud to be a Democrat in name only. There are also a group of eight Democrats called the Independent Democratic Caucus (IDC) who work with the Republicans, giving the Republicans an effective supermajority. They appear to hate this bag bill, and so they easily gave the Republicans in the Senate the power to undermine New York City’s desire to take another step toward a better environment. Most of the IDC is made of Senators who represent the city.

Spirit of resistance problem: We need to take every stand we can to resist the current White House. This means that our state should be standing proud and together to show the federal government that we care about better environmental law and policy. Seeing Assembly members from the city fighting with the City Council by effectively wagging their legislative finger is not the message we should send right now. I want to see my state legislators prioritizing their energy by improving our healthcare laws here, our worker protections here, and our environmental laws here. All of these policies are under threat or attack from the federal government.

This is why I can’t understand why my Brooklyn Assemblymember, Walter T. Mosley has not publicly stated his opposition to this bill. The state Legislature should support New York City and work together right now for the good of us all. Every environmental advocacy group in the city supports this bill. And most of the time, my Assemblymember supports the progressive legislation that his constituents expect of him. Every New York City-based state Legislator should be with their constituents on this right now and show their spirit of resistance in all forms.

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Richard Semegram is a tenant lawyer, his Twitter handle is @richagram

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State Legislators from New York City Should Not Be Bagging the Bag Fee Mon, 06 Feb 2017 16:14:51 +0000
Early in Albany Session, Plastic Bag Fee Sparks Home Rule Debate http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6722:early-in-albany-session-plastic-bag-fee-sparks-home-rule-debate http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6722:early-in-albany-session-plastic-bag-fee-sparks-home-rule-debate felder bag fee city hall via scott reif

Senator Felder & opponents of the bag fee (photo: Scott Reif)


An attempt by lawmakers in Albany to prevent the New York City Council from imposing a fee on plastic and paper bags at retail stores has reignited a debate over home rule and the state government’s interference in the work of a democratically elected local legislative body.  

The New York State Senate passed a bill on Tuesday that prohibits “the imposition of any tax, fee or local charge on carry out merchandise bags in cities having a population of one million or more.” The bill, sponsored by Sen. Simcha Felder, a Brooklyn Democrat, directly targets a law passed by the City Council and signed by Mayor Bill de Blasio last year that imposes a nickel fee on those bags and is due to go into effect February 15.

The law, which passed with a relatively slim City Council majority, is meant to reduce waste and environmental damage, as New Yorkers send billions of bags per year into the waste stream While it make exceptions for people on public assistance, its opponents argue that it would be a prohibitive burden on New Yorkers, including poor people and families more broadly.

“Many families have a hard time just getting by, paying for groceries, rent and heat, and now the Mayor wants to shake them down every time they shop just for the privilege of using a plastic bag,” Senator Felder, who represents part of Brooklyn, said in a statement on Tuesday. “Mayor de Blasio, please do not nickel-and-dime New Yorkers with another tax. This will hurt lower- and middle-income families who already struggle. I'm asking New Yorkers to stand up and tell the Mayor that this bag tax has to go.”

Although Felder is a Democrat, he caucuses with Republicans to create a Senate majority. His bill was co-sponsored by three Republicans and also two other Democrats, both members of the Independent Democratic Conference, a breakaway group that shares power in the Senate with Republicans. Felder’s bill passed with 42 votes in favor and 18 against.

For the Democratic Senators who opposed Tuesday’s bill, the plastic bag fee at the heart of the issue was not the only thing under threat. They criticized Felder’s bill for violating the state constitution’s principle of home rule that gives local governments the authority over many of their own affairs, and for doing so only in the case of New York City while making no mention of smaller jurisdictions that have passed similar bag fees.

The Senate bill, Democrats insisted, was narrowly targeted and would set a dangerous precedent for the legislative body. Even the word “fee” became a point of contention. Felder, and those who supported him, call it a “tax” instead and argue that the city has no right to impose it. Under state law, only the state Legislature can approve any new taxes. It is considered a fee because the stores keep it, the money is not passed to the government.

Sen. Liz Krueger, a Democrat from Manhattan, arguing on the Senate floor against Felder’s proposal, wondered “why should we override history, precedent, perhaps the constitution...and take an action that overrides a local government’s law applying only to itself?”

Krueger expressed concern that it reflects political developments at the national level, where the incoming federal administration may seek to unduly interfere in the workings of the state. In a statement after the passage of the bill, Krueger said, “If this bill becomes law, it will set a shameful and dangerous precedent that local solutions to local environmental issues will be vetoed in Albany.”

The bill is now with the Democrat-led Assembly and if it passes there, it would be sent to Governor Andrew Cuomo for his signature. “We would like to see if we can get the city come to an agreement with how the Legislature has raised a concern,” said Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, at a Tuesday news conference. “But again, we don’t want to minimize the environmental concern that the city has raised.”

State intervention in New York City’s affairs is not novel and has in the past been a source of tension in the city-state dynamic, at times along partisan lines. The state’s Municipal Home Rule Law provides that the state can intervene in a local jurisdiction’s affairs if the locality sends a “Home Rule message” to the state Legislature requesting that certain laws be enacted or if the state Legislature demonstrates that an issue is a “matter of state concern.” Otherwise, the state Legislature cannot pass laws that apply only to a specific locality. That the bill targets New York City is a given: there is no other municipality in the state with more than a million residents. That might give its opponents an opportunity to challenge it as a “special law” rather than a “general law” that applies statewide.

Courts have in the past cited ‘home rule’ as a basis for striking down laws passed in Albany that affect New York City alone. But the language in Felder’s bill refers to an “open class” of locality, rather than naming New York City, and that argument has been upheld by courts, said Richard Briffault, a professor at Columbia Law School who specializes in state and local government law. “The state most likely has the legal authority to ban local plastic bag fees but it is completely inconsistent with the idea and purpose of local home rule,” he said.

Echoing Briffault, Doug Muzzio, political science professor at Baruch College, emphasized Albany’s “virtually absolute” power over New York City. “Under Dillon's rule, cities are creatures of the state,” Muzzio said, referring to a judgement in 1868 by Judge John Forrest Dillon, then-chief justice of the Iowa Supreme Court, which narrowly defined a municipality’s authority as being derived from the state government. “Their powers, their very existence is determined by the state,” Muzzio added. “Albany's power over the city has long been a source of anguish. In his 1861 address before the Common Council, Mayor Fernando Wood called Albany's power ‘odious and oppressive.’ It remains so.”

Muzzio said Senate Republicans were using the authority within their right to enforce their own goals. Complicating matters, though, is that there are more than a dozen Democrats in the New York City Council who voted against the bag fee. Still, this does not change the fact that the city passed its own law on the matter.

The overarching debate is also somewhat complicated by the fact that the plastic bag fee has pitted senators representing New York City against their colleagues from the five boroughs, making them all stakeholders in the issue serving overlapping constituents. Supporters of the bag fee insisted on Tuesday that legislators from outside the city should not interfere with local matters while opponents of the fee pleaded to those outside legislators to help them avoid imposing a new burden on their constituents.

“There are seven City Council members who represent my district,” said Senator Diane Savino, an IDC memebr and one of the state cosponsors who represents Staten Island’s northern shore and parts of South Brooklyn, during the Senate debate. “Every single one of them voted against [the bag fee bill in the City Council]…What they weren’t able to accomplish in the City Council, they want me to be able to deliver for them up here in Albany. They thought it was bad policy for the City of New York. They lost the fight there but they want us to win the fight here.”

Savino also complained that the Senate had been misled by the City Council. The bag fee would have gone into effect in October last year but the Council delayed its implementation after facing strong opposition in Albany. The Senate voted then, as it has now, to ban any taxes or fees on plastic bags. As a result, the City Council struck a deal with the State Assembly to push implementation to 2017 and to revisit the language in the bill. Those negotiations have yet to produce results, with the fee set to go into effect in less than one month. “They did not negotiate in good faith,” said Savino. “We cannot trust them.”

Senator Jesse Hamilton, another IDC member from Brooklyn, who spoke later, stood up against the Senate bill. “Every time we speak about home rule in this chamber, it never applies to New York City," he said. "For this chamber to say the City Council in New York City, they don't know what they are doing, I find that a little offensive.”

Negotiations between the Council and state lawmakers are still continuing, said City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito at a news conference on Wednesday, in response to Gotham Gazette’s questions. Mark-Viverito expressed her displeasure that the Senate was attempting to thwart legislation that had been extensively debated. “I think it’s unfortunate that New York City is being specifically targeted by the bill that is being presented and that is being discussed and the Senate voted on,” she said.

The day before the Senate took up the bill, Mayor de Blasio vowed to push back against its efforts. In his weekly appearance on NY1, he told host Errol Louis, “I’ll work with the City Council to push this back, because I don’t see an alternative. Do we really want to keep doing something that’s really bad for our environment and takes up lots of fossil fuels as we’re facing climate change. I think the Council was right to pass it and if some of the folks in the state Senate oppose it, what’s their alternative? The status quo is not acceptable.”

A key player in what happens next is a main de Blasio ally: Assembly Speaker Heastie, a Bronx Democrat. Then, there is Gov. Cuomo, not typically a de Blasio friend, who would be forced to decide whether to sign the state legislation if it passes both houses. Cuomo’s office did not return a request for comment about the debate over the bag fee.

City Council Member Brad Lander, a Brooklyn Democrat and one of the prime sponsors of the bag fee legislation, is hoping that either the Assembly will vote down the bill or that Governor Cuomo, known for his positive record on environmental conservation, will veto it.

Lander said it was “mystifying” that the state Legislature would attempt to roll back environmental regulation and dictate a “law of dubious legality” to the city. But he remained open to changing the language in the bill if it meant it could be improved and receive the Legislature’s support. “I’m worried that Albany is going to nullify this very sensible effective environmental policy,” he said. “I assumed that when Suffolk County, not known as a bastion of left-wingers, passed the same bill, and when the City of Long Beach in Nassau County did the same, that that would help members of the Legislature see that this is growing, that there’s support for it, that this is something we should be looking at more broadly.”

Critiquing Felder’s bill, he added, “It is an unconstitutional special law masquerading as a general law. Home rule should be required and I think everyone knows it.”

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by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

Additional reporting by Rachel Silberstein

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Early in Albany Session, Plastic Bag Fee Sparks Home Rule Debate Thu, 19 Jan 2017 05:00:00 +0000
Time to Cut the High Cost of the Free Plastic Bag http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6316:the-high-cost-of-the-free-plastic-bag http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6316:the-high-cost-of-the-free-plastic-bag plastic bag fee rally

A rally for the plastic bag fee bill (photo via @bradlander)


It’s a fact: people who live in America’s most polluted environments are most commonly people of color and poor. New York City is no exception; thanks to decades of unfair policies, over 75 percent of the city’s entire solid waste stream is now processed in a handful of low-income neighborhoods and communities of color in the outer boroughs. Consequently, these communities bear the disproportionate burden of high truck traffic, diesel fuel emissions, unsanitary conditions, and noise pollution.

Spearheaded by communities of color living in environmentally overburdened areas, the Environmental Justice Movement emerged to collectively protect the places where we live, work, and play. Now, we’re voicing our support, from Brooklyn to the Bronx, for legislation to drastically reduce the number of plastic bags in our waste stream by attaching a 5 cent charge.

What do “free” plastic bags have to do with environmental justice? The bag that many of us were given today is just one of 9.37 billion plastic bags that make their way into the city’s waste stream every year – assuming it doesn’t end up polluting our waterways. A whopping 91,000 tons of plastic bags are hauled on diesel trucks for processing at transfer facilities clustered in industrial waterfront neighborhoods, including North Brooklyn, Sunset Park, and the South Bronx. Our communities, more than all others in New York, suffer the noxious fumes and noise pollution, the traffic congestion and unsafe streets, the high rates of asthma and respiratory problems, and the general neighborhood blight caused in part by our city’s love affair with this icon of disposable convenience.

Faced daily with these burdens, low-income New Yorkers of color already know the high cost of “free” plastic bags.

The legislation pending before the City Council, Intro. 209, is an integral part of the city’s larger zero waste goal to divert 90 percent of our waste stream from landfills by 2030. Meeting this ambitious target would improve quality of life for thousands of New Yorkers living in environmental justice communities near waste facilities. The City Council worked alongside advocates to draft a bill that addresses the concerns of low-income New Yorkers.

The bill provides exemptions for customers using SNAP, WIC benefits, and other transactions at emergency food providers. It also includes provisions for community outreach and the distribution of free reusable bags in low-income communities.

Grassroots, community-based environmental justice advocates have a long history of finding innovative solutions to proactively address the inequitable environmental burdens that we face. Int. 209 is not a cure-all for our solid waste problems – we have a long way to go to achieve a truly equitable solid waste system. But a law on the books showing the city working to meet its waste reduction goal is no doubt a big step in the right direction. By reducing the amount of single-use bags in our communities, the city can help lessen the burden of unnecessary waste and trucks in our environment, and improve the neighborhoods of low-income communities and communities of color.

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Eddie Bautista is the executive director of the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance, where Priya Mulgaonkar serves as policy organizer. Mark Winston Griffith is the executive director of the Brooklyn Movement Center, a community organizing body in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Crown Heights and the surrounding area.

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Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email opinion@gothamgazette.com

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Time to Cut the High Cost of the Free Plastic Bag Tue, 03 May 2016 04:00:00 +0000
Supporters Launch Renewed Push to Pass Plastic Bag Bill by Earth Day http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6199:supporters-launch-renewed-push-to-pass-plastic-bag-bill-by-earth-day http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6199:supporters-launch-renewed-push-to-pass-plastic-bag-bill-by-earth-day lander plastic bags

Council Member Lander & young people against plastic bags (photo: William Alatriste)


“Last year, we said bag fees by Earth Day,” Council Member Brad Lander told Gotham Gazette, shortly before an unrelated committee hearing at City Hall. “I’m saying it again. Bag fees by Earth Day.”

Even a year later, Lander is confident that the bill he is co-sponsoring with Council Member Margaret Chin to impose fees on single-use plastic and paper bags at grocery stores and bodegas will pass the Council by April 22, Earth Day. Lander, Chin, and their allies are making a renewed push to see the legislation pass, including making tweaks to the bill and gathering new support.

The bill, an effort to reduce the number of plastic bags that end up in the city’s waste stream, was introduced in March 2014 but has not moved since it was initially heard on Nov. 19, 2014 by the Committee on Sanitation and Solid Waste Management. While supporters call it an important environment-friendly measure, opponents say it will be cumbersome for families when grocery shopping and everyday people making quick purchases. Proponents cite the already underway increase in the use of reusable bags for shopping, while opponents say this is an unnecessary infringement into the private marketplace and people’s lives.

In order to become law, the bill must pass in committee and the full Council, then be signed by Mayor Bill de Blasio.

Now, in a 2016 effort that even involves support from state legislators, Lander, Chin, and others are pushing forward with the hope that by the time Spring rolls into Summer, de Blasio will have signed the bill into law. Currently, the bill has 21 Council sponsors in total, plus the support of Public Advocate Letitia James. It needs five more co-sponsors for a majority in the 51-member Council.

“As Spring starts to return to New York, people remember that plastic bags aren’t what’s supposed to bloom in trees, and it’s time for the city to adopt the fee and significantly reduce plastic bag waste,” Lander told Gotham Gazette. “I’m optimistic that we’ll get there.” Lander said that the bill is being changed slightly to be more effective as he and Chin respond to the issues raised at the initial hearing.

State Senator Brad Hoylman, who chairs the Senate’s environmental conservation committee, is paying close attention to the city bag bill, which he believes is a litmus test for any efforts the state might make to legislate on the issue. At an event at New York University on Feb. 25 co-sponsored by members of Congress, the State Assembly and Senate, the Manhattan Borough President’s office, and a number of Manhattan community boards, Hoylman and Council Member Chin discussed the proposals and the way forward.

Hoylman said New York City is setting the standard for the state. “The city is a good testing ground for how we might get this passed statewide,” he told Gotham Gazette after the event, “working with advocates and retailers on finding a formula that satisfies the goals of reducing use and not making it too onerous for the retail industry.”

But the struggle is likely to be even harder at the state level where the Democrats don’t have control of the Legislature as they do in the city (the Assembly is controlled by Democrats whereas the Senate is run by a Republican majority). Hoylman, a Democrat, said the Senate majority “typically opposes” legislation like the plastic bag bill. But he isn’t giving up hope that the Democrats could turn things around in this year’s election cycle, when all 213 seats in the Legislature are on the ballot, and perhaps pass a bill next year.

Hoylman is partnering with Sen. Liz Krueger, another Manhattan Democrat, to draft policy to be introduced, but only once New York City moves ahead with its bill. “We’ll see how the negotiations go at the city level and see what they end up with,” he said.

A number of environmental advocates attended the event, along with representatives from Senator Krueger’s office and State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli’s office in the audience. Jenny Romer, founder of plasticbaglaws.org and an advocate of bag fees and bans, spent close to an hour explaining the issue and discussing parallel efforts in other cities, some of which have been successful.

In New York City, the opposition to the bill has been fierce from those in the plastics industry who say it will do little to curb waste, that reusable bags will spread harmful bacteria and, most significantly, that it is a “tax” which will hurt low-income people. This opposition has come from within the City Council, too. (Under the bill, SNAP and WIC enrollees would be exempt from paying the fee.)

A number of groups came out against the bill, including the American Progressive Bag Alliance, which represents the plastics industry trade association, the Society of the Plastics Industry. APBA chairman, Mark Daniels, who also works with Novolex, a plastic bag manufacturer and recycler, testified at the February hearing. “The reality is that taxes and bans on plastic bags will fail to solve any environmental problem, turn people towards inferior options and jeopardize good American jobs, including those right here in New York City,” he said.

Council Member David Greenfield called the proposal “outrageous” at the hearing. He stressed the impracticality of carrying dozens of reusable bags to the grocery store and said low-income families would be worst-affected by the bill.

Minority Leader Steven Matteo, one of three Republican members of the Council, was more direct in his words. “If it looks like a tax, smells like a tax, feels like a tax, it’s a tax, and it’s a tax that is hurting our constituents and our businesses,” he said at the hearing.

In trying to win over a “handful” of her colleagues, Council Member Chin said at the event at NYU that supporters are considering lowering the proposed fee from 10 cents to 5 cents per bag, and that it might make the difference in getting majority support for the bill.

“That’s one of the big ones,” she said of the possible amendment, which might be among a few changes made to the bill. “I think so far, we’re trying to get everything together, and we want to have Earth Day as the day to finally make it happen.”

Recently, concerns were raised about Chin’s use of public money to fund outreach efforts about the bag bill through a non-profit, the Citizens Committee of New York, which is a registered lobbyist with the city. Lander dismissed the charges as a "hatchet job."

Mayor de Blasio is in favor of the bill’s intent -- reducing bag waste -- but has stopped short of outright support for the measure. “Well, that’s something we’ve been talking to the Council about and I’ve said that we share the goal of addressing the problem of plastic bags,” he said in response to a question from Gotham Gazette at a news conference on Feb. 1 where he announced the CleaNYC program, which includes increased graffiti-removal efforts, sidewalk power washing, and stepped-up litter basket collection on Sundays and holidays.

“This is a real environmental problem,” he said of the roughly 100,000 tons of plastic bags that New York City disposes of annually. “There are still some issues being worked through on the best way to do it, but, you know, when there are two parties who agree on the goal it’s just a matter of time of figuring it out the best way to get it done. And I’m pretty confident we’ll get there.” 

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by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

This article has been changed to include the correct dates that the bill was introduced and heard in committee.

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Supporters Launch Renewed Push to Pass Plastic Bag Bill by Earth Day Mon, 29 Feb 2016 22:39:23 +0000