After several days of meditating upside down in a cave, Governor Andrew Cuomo at long last reached a decision on the city’s long embattled plastic bag fee. The announcement was made somewhere deep within one of the the most discursive press releases this reporter has ever seen, which began with a reference to Theodore Roosevelt and capped off, roughly 1,000 words later, with a call for a Bag Fee Task Force. In between, there was a journey. (Spoiler: Cuomo struck down the bag fee for now, though he never did explicitly say whether he signed the bill to veto it.)
The central issue, according to the missive, which historians will refer to as Cuomo’s Gettysbag Address, is that the five cent fee was intended to be returned to retailers.
“I understand the political process to pass a bill can require placating potential opposition but a 100 million dollar bonus to private companies is beyond the absurd,” the governor wrote, somewhat hyperbolically.
Cuomo presumably knows very well the reason that the fee is a “fee,” and not a “tax.” According to Paul Leonard, Chief of Staff for Councilwoman Margaret Chin, who co-sponsored the original bill proposing the fee, the city does not have the power to instate a tax that would be returned to the public coffers.
“There’s no revenue generating component,” Leonard said of the fee. “It’s merely a trigger to make people think for maybe a millisecond about whether they need that bag.”
Other city officials are no less disgusted by Cuomo’s decision to meddle in an issue that otherwise does not concern him. Council Speaker Melissa Mark Viverito put it in especially piquant terms during a press conference earlier today:
“Instead of protecting the autonomy of the New York City Council and our legislative process, Governor Cuomo has added to the rampant dysfunction that is Albany by putting cheap politics ahead of our environment and the will of the people who actually live in New York City. As both Governor Cuomo and the State Legislature are well aware, the Council would be more than willing to collect a portion of the bag fee for environmental purposes, if only they granted us the authority to do so. Plastic bags litter our streets, clog our landfills and needlessly cost the City millions of dollars each year. The New York City Council’s Bring Your Own Bag law would have stopped the scourge of plastic bags in our City, and this ridiculous State law undermines New York City’s authority, hurts New Yorkers and sets a dangerous precedent for our city and every other locality in the state.”
A joint statement from Chin and Councilman Brad Lander was more resigned: “We fought plastic bags, and for now, plastic bags won,” they wrote, riffing off a lyric from the Bobby Fuller Four, further popularized by The Clash. They went on:
“It is disappointing that the State Legislature and the Governor killed NYC’s Bring Your Own Bag Law, which was democratically adopted by the City Council after two years of hearings, reviewing evidence, reusable bag giveaways, and public debate. By nullifying only New York City’s law – but leaving nearly identical laws in Suffolk and Nassau Counties intact – the Legislature has put in jeopardy the basic concept of ‘home rule.’”
So the bag fee is no more, at least not for now. What, then, was the gist of those other 950 words employed by Cuomo in his statement? Here are some highlights:
“While there are no doubt institutional political issues at play, and while New York City’s law is an earnest attempt at a real solution, it is also undeniable that the City’s bill is deeply flawed. Most objectionable is that the law was drafted so that merchants keep the five cent fee as profit, instead of the money being used to solve the problem of plastic bags’ environmental impact – essentially amounting to a $100 million per year windfall to merchants.”
This is a great passage. “Earnest attempt” calls to mind a toddler that foolishly tried to tie its own shoes, failing bitterly. “Deeply flawed” is the Platonic ideal of an overstatement, considering the flaw, as he sees it, is the city’s inability to magically instate its own tax laws. Then, a reminder of who’s REALLY in charge here (Big Daddy Cuomo):
“There are two possible rationales for New York City’s bill providing the fee to profit the merchants: political expediency or legal impossibility. If the council needed the political support of the merchants to pass the bill, a $100 million price was too high a cost to pay. If the city was not empowered to allow a fee to go to a government entity as it exceeds their legal authority, then that necessitates state action. In either case, the windfall profit to private entities is unjustifiable and unnecessary.”
The city, therefore, should have KNOWN better than to try to tie its own shoes without the cooperation of the state. Then there’s this, which reminds us what a steak-eatin’, chopper ridin’, leather-jacket wearin’ tough guy Cuomo is, lest anyone forget.
“As a New Yorker, I have reeled in numerous plastic bags while fishing in the Hudson and off Long Island. I have seen plastic bags in the trees while hiking in the Adirondacks and driving down the Grand Concourse in the Bronx.”
I, too, have seen plastic bags ensnared on the claws of the bears I wrestle in Poughkeepsie. Just last week, I performed an emergency tracheotomy on my bald eagle, Jackson, after I discovered that he’d swallowed a single-use bag tossed on the ground by a loathsome teen.
Anyway, despite the years the City Council has already spent hashing out the particulars, Cuomo has some questions — questions so hyper-stretched and theoretical that there’s no way anyone, much less an as-yet unassembled Task Force — will ever be able to address them in our lifetimes. It’s almost as if that’s…intentional:
“Questions as to what the statewide solution should be are very much in debate: should the State ban paper and plastic carry-out products? Is a tax the best approach? If so, at what level and who should be the beneficiary? Should the State be obligated to supply reusable bags for a period of time during a transition so that low-income consumers are not unduly financially burdened through the process?” he asks.
“I look forward to New York State leading the way on this issue,” he concludes, finally. By which he means: I look forward to deferring this issue until I am president, or dead, whichever comes first.
Cuomo’s office did not respond to requests for comment.