Plastic bag ban approved in New York budget

INSIDE: Key Initiatives | Audio | Video

March 31, 2019 - 8:52 pm
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ALBANY, N.Y. (WBEN/AP) — A statewide ban on plastic bags and first-in-the-nation tolls for motorists entering the busiest sections of Manhattan are coming to New York under a new state budget that takes several ambitious steps to address long-standing environmental and transportation challenges.

Lawmakers worked through the night Sunday to pass the $175.5 billion spending plan. Final votes were expected early Monday, the start of a new fiscal year and the date the budget is due.

The sprawling legislation contains a myriad of provisions guaranteed to affect residents and visitors in some way. Provisions in the budget will eliminate cash bail for misdemeanor and non-violent felony offenses, make an annual 2 percent property tax cap permanent, increase education spending by $1 billion and create a new, $100 million public campaign finance system.

"This budget is probably the strongest progressive statement that we've made," Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo told reporters Sunday as lawmakers worked through hours of debate and voting on the budget. "If you have big problems, it calls for big solutions."

One key detail will be resolved later: the amount of the new tolls in Manhattan. Known as "congestion pricing," the tolls will be imposed starting in 2021 on vehicles traveling south of 61st Street as a way to discourage traffic and raise money for the city's ailing subways and regional commuter rail systems. Similar tolls are already in place in cities including London, Singapore, Stockholm.

The tolls could cost nearly $12 for personal vehicles, according to a report issued last year.

Calls for congestion tolls had been dismissed for years as a political long-shot until Cuomo made it a priority this year, along with an accompanying overhaul of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the byzantine agency that oversees city transit.

Even with key details unresolved, transit advocates praised passage of the tolls as vital to the future of the subways and New York's viability as a 21st century global city.

"If our transit system is the beating heart of our city, then our arteries are severely clogged," said Scott Rechler, chairman of the Regional Plan Association, a non-profit planning organization, and a former MTA board member. "Congestion pricing is the right solution at the right time, and it is only fitting that New York City be the first city in the US to incorporate it."

The budget includes two other revenue sources for the subways: a "mansion tax" on Manhattan homes that sell for $25 million or more, and an internet sales tax levied on online retailers.

Without the new revenue, Cuomo had warned of the possibility of sharp increases in subway and bus fares.

With the ban on plastic bags, New York will join California and Hawaii as the only states where the ubiquitous items are banned throughout the state. Taking effect March 1, 2020, the ban will apply to most single-use plastic bags provided by groceries and other stores. Individual counties will have the option of charging 5 cents for paper bags, with 2 cents going to local governments and 3 cents to the state's Environmental Protection Fund.

"The convenience of plastic bags is simply not worth the environmental impact," said Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, D-Bronx. "By reducing our state's usage, we will see less litter in our communities and less plastic pollution in our waterways."

The budget will establish a new commission that will come up with a system for public financing of legislative and statewide offices, with up to $100 million in taxpayer funds authorized annually for such a system. The commission's conclusions are due Dec. 1 and will have the force of law unless the Legislature were to convene within 20 days to modify or reject the proposal.

Supporters of public financing say it would reduce the influence of money in politics. Many expressed tepid support for the commission, since it will empower an unelected commission to largely circumvent the Legislature.

Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause-New York, called the commission "a ploy" and said public financing of campaigns is too complicated an issue to be jammed into a state budget.

"New Yorkers deserve to get it right," she said.

The legalization of recreational marijuana was the most significant item left out of the spending blueprint. While Cuomo had initially pushed to include legalization in the budget, top lawmakers said there wasn't enough time to resolve complicated questions about regulations and taxation.

Marijuana is expected to be the top issue facing lawmakers over the next few months as they work toward adjournment in late June. Legalization advocates expressed impatience with the delay.

"Each day marijuana legalization is not passed, someone is arrested, deported, evicted or loses custody of a child because of criminalization," said Kassandra Frederique, state director of the Drug Policy Alliance.

Here’s a look at some of the key items included in the $175.5 billion state budget agreement announced Sunday by Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the Democrat-controlled New York Legislature:

MANHATTAN TOLLS: Vehicles traveling south of 61st Street will be charged a toll beginning in 2021 through electronic devices placed around the borough’s central business district. New York City’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority will create a review board tasked with determining toll amounts depending on the time of day, along with exemptions. Funds to be dedicated solely for upgrading the city’s transit system, along with revenues from a new transfer tax on Manhattan homes that sell for more than $25 million and a tax on internet retail sales.

MTA REFORMS: Include requiring the Metropolitan Transportation Authority to develop a reorganization plan by June 1. Also, requires independent audit and efficiency review and public reporting on MTA performance metrics.

PLASTIC BAG BAN: Prohibits most single-use plastic bags provided by supermarkets and other retailers starting March 1, 2020. Gives counties and cities the option to charge 5 cents for paper bags.

EDUCATION SPENDING: Boosts public education funding by $1 billion to $27.9 billion, with more than $700 million of that going to the state’s poorer school districts. All districts will be required to report how their funding is being allocated to each school within the district.

HEALTH CARE: Increases state spending on Medicaid and other health care programs by $700 million to $19.6 billion, and codifies the federal Affordable Care Act and the state’s Health Exchange into state law.

PROPERTY TAX CAP: Makes the 2 percent cap on local property taxes permanent. Current temporary law was scheduled to expire next June. Since its implementation in 2012, the tax has saved taxpayers $25 billion, according to Cuomo.

CRIMINAL JUSTICE REFORMS: Eliminates cash bail for misdemeanors and non-violent arrests; requires officers to issue appearance tickets rather than take someone into custody for low-level crimes; requires prosecutors and defense lawyers to share all pre-trail information, and ensures a defendant’s right to a speedy trial.

PUBLIC CAMPAIGN FINANCING: Establishes a state commission to implement a public campaign financing system for Senate and Assembly races and for statewide offices, with up to $100 million annually in public funds for campaigns. Commission to submit its findings in a report due Dec. 1.

WATER INFRASTRUCTURE: Provides another $500 million in clean water infrastructure, in addition to the state’s $2.5 billion investment.

LIMOUSINE REGULATIONS: Increases penalties for operating a limo without the proper state authorization or for violating transportation safety regulations; gives state police and transportation officials authority to seize limo license plates when vehicles aren’t in compliance; and allows the state to revoke registration for limos that don’t meet federal safety standards.

VOTING: Employers throughout the state will have to offer their workers three hours of paid time off to cast a ballot on election day. The state will also set aside $10 million to help counties pay for the roll-out of advance voting, which was approved earlier this year.

PRISONS: Up to three prisons will be closed to save $35 million as the state’s prison population declines. The facilities will be chosen based on their size and role within the corrections system, with the goal of eliminating 1,200 prison beds.

DREAM ACT: Lawmakers endorsed legislation earlier this year to make financial aid available to students who were brought into the country illegally as children. The measure and the appropriate funds were included in the budget.

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