NYC bag tax dominates recent budget hearing

Photo courtesy of the Environmental Protection Agency


Both State Senator Simcha Felder and New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio share the same objective – a greener New York – but believe in different solutions.

At the joint budget hearing on local government in Albany on January 30th, De Blasio and legislators spoke about a variety of topics including: affordable housing, homelessness, and the Administration for Children’s Services.

But there was one topic that occupied much of de Blasio’s testimony — plastic bags.

Reducing petroleum-based products is De Blasio’s focus under a controversial, five-cent-per-bag fee passed by the Common Council last spring. De Blasio suggests that the plastic bag tax — set to take effect this week unless the state Legislature nullifies it — is giving New Yorkers the incentive to use reusable bags as a long-term solution.

Assemblyman Michael Benedetto asked for a postponement of the bag tax, to instead have hearings for it and seek a better alternative. A bill passed in the Senate and Assembly recently would postpone the controversial fee. The decision lies with Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

De Blasio does not wish to delay the efforts though. “With education efforts and with conservative efforts to provide consumers with permanent bags that they can bring to markets as our ancestors did long before there were plastic bags, we think that can solve the problem,” he said, referring to longer term efforts aimed at curbing the use of fossil fuels.

Felder also expresses concern for the plastic bag tax with a statement; “Let’s stop saying that the only way to protect the environment, or address climate change, is by taxing the people.”
Felder asked the mayor about what steps have been taken to reform the bag tax since its months-long postponement.

De Blasio said he fundamentally disagrees that this is an issue that isn’t urgent to address in terms of climate change. De Blasio went on, “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.”

De Blasio stood firm that a financial incentive such as a nickel fee can get New Yorkers to change their behavior for the sake of the climate.

“It is about changing behavior, educating people and providing alternatives such as providing consumers with reusable bags,” the mayor said. “One thing I know for sure is the status quo is not acceptable.”

Felder, holding up a loaf of bread as a prop, asked de Blasio, “Do you know what a loaf of bread costs these days?” making a point about rising food costs. “We are not going to make this debate about whether or not the environment is or isn’t important, it is, period.”

“Rather than being punitive, how can you protect the environment?” Felder went on to suggest rewarding positive behavior. “Why don’t you give a nickel back to New Yorkers for every bag they don’t use? A nickel back for a change. Reward positive behavior.”

De Blasio responded, “This is the right thing to do (referring to the plastic bag tax), to break with the status quo we’re in right now. Plastic bags no longer have a place in our lives.”

The clear difference here is De Blasio’s approach is more about changing behavior, while Felder’s approach is about rewarding good behavior.

One thing is for sure though; both parties remain uncertain about how the new federal administration could weigh in and force a different approach.

Felder has continued his opposition to the bag tax where his office released a video which compiled interviews of New Yorker’s opinions about the plastic bag tax. Many of the interviewees in the video say New Yorkers are taxed enough already.

Again, as Felder said, “This is a 99 percent tax on the 99 percent” going on to explain that the 1 percent have their groceries delivered or someone do their grocery shopping for them.