NY Bans Plastic Bags, Adopts Congestion Pricing in 2020 Budget Vote

Members of the New York state Senate debate budget bills during session in Senate Chamber at the state Capitol on March, 31, 2019, in Albany, N.Y. (AP Photo/Hans Pennink)

ALBANY (CN) – New Yorkers will soon see some big changes after the state Senate signed off this weekend on a ban on plastic shopping bags as well as congestion pricing when they passed the state’s 2020 budget.

The environment-focused items mark a new power shift in the New York, which took on a Democratic majority in both chambers of the Legislature following the November elections.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, who is also a Democrat, trumpeted the new plan in remarks Sunday.

“This is probably the broadest, most sweeping state plan that we have done,” he said. “There are a number of national firsts and it really grapples with the tough issues that have been facing this state for a long time. … I think this budget is probably the strongest progressive statement that we’ve made and actually addresses many of the difficult, difficult issues that we are facing today.”

Despite their majority, Democrats did not pass the measures without difficulty. Ugly infighting among legislators kept them in session until the wee hours of Monday morning.

The congestion-pricing plan, which is the first of its kind in the nation, and a statewide ban on plastic single-use shopping bags, the country’s second such ban, are two of the most significant budget items in the $175.5 billion deal.

Set to take effect in 2021, congestion pricing calls for a toll on vehicles entering Manhattan’s central business district, south of 60th Street. It follows similar plans in several cities abroad including London, Stockholm and Singapore, and is intended to cut carbon emissions, reduce traffic and raise funds to fix New York City’s crumbling subway system.

Though exact pricing still needs to be ironed out, car drivers could expect to pay over $10 to enter Manhattan, and trucks over $20. The system will build upon existing E-Z Pass technology, lawmakers say.

The issue of congestion pricing has been batted around for decades, but has previously faced challenges by upstate legislators whose constituents drive at a higher rate than do city residents.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and Governor Cuomo, who clashed loudly on the issue of MTA funding for years, finally came together in February — de Blasio somewhat reluctantly — to back congestion pricing. They’d also proposed a tax on marijuana, but legislators failed to agree Sunday on a plan to legalize the drug.

At a February State Senate hearing over congestion pricing, MTA executives warned lawmakers that if they did not act on the idea, public transit riders could see fares rise up to 30 percent by 2024.

New York is the second state in the country, after California, to ban plastic shopping bags statewide and encourage people to carry reusable bags. Hawaii bans them in every county.

New York’s ban on single-use plastic bags is set to begin in March 2020. It will leave up to the counties whether to impose an optional 5-cent fee on paper bags. The state’s Environmental Protection Fund will get 3 of those 5 cents, with the remaining 2 cents going to the purchase of reusable bags. People who use food stamps would be exempt from the fee.  

The budget fell short of passing some more progressive measures, including legislation on marijuana legalization or major strides toward public-campaign financing.

It does, however, mandate three hours of paid time off for New York workers on Election Day, and will require upstate polling places to open at 6 a.m. instead of noon. The budget also includes a bill mandating that restaurants, grocery stores, sports stadiums and colleges recycle their food scraps as long as they are located within 25 miles of a place that can process the waste. The bill requires such entities to donate usable food instead of throwing it.

With one budget item, Cuomo lashed out over the collapse of the Amazon deal, which would have had the retail giant build a headquarters in Long Island City, Queens. Amazon pulled out on Valentine’s Day, citing opposition from local lawmakers. Earlier that month, State Senate Deputy Leader Mike Gianaris, who represents Long Island City in Albany and opposed the deal, had been recommended to an obscure state board that could have reviewed and possibly blocked the project. So in the 2020 budget, Cuomo — who was furious over the collapse of the deal — gave himself “full discretion to immediately remove” any member of the Public Authorities Control Board who appeared to do anything beyond fiscal analysis.

In a win for bail-reform activists, the new plan also slashes cash bail for about 90 percent of New York cases, with exceptions for violent felonies.

“It is long past time that we reform our antiquated criminal justice system,” Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie said in a statement Monday.

“This year’s budget plan includes legislation that the Assembly majority has championed in the past, including eliminating cash bail for most misdemeanor and non-violent felony offenses, because wealth should not determine if a person accused but not convicted of a crime sits in jail while awaiting trial.”

In the face of federal attempts to roll back provisions of the federal health care law, the new budget also codifies the state’s health insurance marketplace into law.

A new tax on luxury real estate, for properties valued at $25 million and up, will top out at 4.15%. A proposed pied-à-terre tax on expensive second homes collapsed under pressure from the real estate industry.

Both Cuomo and Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul also were both approved pay raises as part of the new plan, pushing their earnings to $250,000 and $220,000 by 2021, respectively, which will make Cuomo the highest-paid governor in the country.  

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