State lawmakers overruled New York City's mayor and city council by blocking a fee on non-reusable shopping bags in the city just hours before it was set to take effect.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Tuesday signed a proposal to postpone the bag fee, which would have instructed store owners to charge least a nickel for single-use shopping bags beginning Wednesday.
Cuomo's action cements overwhelming votes by both the Assembly and the Senate last week to prohibit the council from placing fees on disposable shopping bags until at least 2018.
Cuomo, a Democrat, called the fee "deeply flawed" because it would allow store owners to keep the profits from the bag fee rather than investing in environmental solutions. The governor instead announced a task force to report on the impacts of plastic bags statewide by the end of the year.
"It is a statewide challenge," he said. "As such, a statewide solution is the most appropriate way to address this issue."
Republican Majority Leader John Flanagan applauded the moratorium.
"We take these issues very seriously and will continue to work collectively toward solutions that preserve our cherished natural resources without placing new burdens on hardworking people," Flanagan said in a statement. "If allowed to go forward, this onerous bag tax would have hurt low- and middle-income residents the most, making it even more difficult to make ends meet in what is already the most expensive city in the world."
But council members slammed lawmakers for what they said was an affront to home-rule.
New York City Councilman Brad Lander, a Brooklyn Democrat and one of the sponsors of the bag fee legislation, said council members spent two years researching, promoting and creating a process to address the 91,000 tons of solid waste caused by plastic bags in the city each year.
"We fought plastic bags, and for now, plastic bags won," he said. "They are stubborn and toxic forms of solid waste. They never biodegrade, so they pollute our trees, oceans, and landfills forever. And they are hard to dislodge from the state Legislature, too."
The action irked local authorities too, who called it government overreach. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, a Democrat, championed the bag fee as a way to reduce litter and protect the environment. The city planned to distribute hundreds of thousands of reusable shopping bags to help with the adjustment, and shoppers using food stamps would not have to pay the fee.
Several cities around the country, including Los Angeles, Washington D.C. and Chicago, have either banned single-use plastic bags or imposed a fee.
"With dysfunction in Washington, now more than ever, we need to empower our local governments to adopt common sense solutions, not block them." said Greg Young, City of Gloversville supervisor and co-coordinator of Elected Officials To Protect New York.
Environmental groups also rebuked lawmakers for delaying efforts to limit reliance on petroleum-based products.
"Let us be clear: a task force that does not lead to a robust statewide law is not an acceptable consolation prize," New York League of Conservation Voters President Marcia Bystryn said. "We take Gov. Cuomo at his word that he will work with the Senate and Assembly and act expeditiously. The League looks forward to participating in the process and holding our state government accountable for enacting the best possible policy solution."