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Nassau Republicans oppose 5-cent fee on paper bags despite support from activists in Rockville Centre, Long Island

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Though Republican Nassau County legislators earlier this month made it clear that they would not support a 5-cent fee on paper bags, their colleagues in and around Rockville Centre are dedicated to pushing the measure, which they say will spur more people to bring reusable bags when shopping.

County Legislator Debra Mulé, a Democrat from Freeport, said on April 5 that she was disappointed that the Legislature’s Republican majority would not institute a 5-cent fee on paper bags, a move that she believes would benefit the environment. “While the state’s ban on plastic bags is a step in the right direction,” Mulé, whose district covers parts of Rockville Centre, said in a statement, “we must continue to encourage residents to embrace sustainable, environmentally friendly choices in their daily lives.”

The state budget, agreed to by lawmakers on April 1, banned plastic bags in all New York retail stores starting next March. The agreement made New York the second state to ban plastic bags — California was the first, and though Hawaii doesn’t have a statewide ban, all of its counties have prohibited the bags in stores. Gov. Andrew Cuomo said the ban was passed to reduce the amount of plastic found in trees and waterways throughout New York.

Under the plan, counties can opt to levy a 5-cent fee on paper bags, with 3 cents going to the state’s Environmental Protection Fund, used to expand New York’s Forest Preserve and restore historic sites. Two cents would go to counties to purchase and distribute reusable shopping bags. But on April 5, Richard Nicolello, the County Legislature’s presiding officer, said the majority would not support such a measure and called it “dead on arrival in Nassau County.”

“It will not be passed by this Legislature,” Nicolello, a Republican from New Hyde Park, told reporters, “and as long as the Republicans have the majority in Nassau County, there will be no paper bag tax.” Republicans, all of whom are up for re-election in November, hold 11 of the Legislature’s 19 seats. Nicolello said the fee, called a tax by some, would be a financial hardship on Nassau residents.

“It’s difficult to survive here in Nassau, and to have another tax imposed on our residents is simply not tolerable,” he added.

“We’re very aware of what the majority leader said, and quite frankly, it doesn’t faze us in the least,” said George Povall, executive director of All Our Energy, a Point Lookout-based environmental awareness group that has led a movement in Rockville Centre and other communities over the last year to eliminate single-use plastic bag pollution. Now, he said, the group is shifting its focus to pushing for the paper bag fee in Nassau County.

Republican Legislators C. William Gaylor III and Howard Kopel, whose districts cover portions of Rockville Centre, oppose the fee, each noting, in statements to the Herald, that County Executive Laura Curran’s re-assessment program, which they said increased taxes for homeowners, has already put a burden on residents. “This unnecessary proposed tax on biodegradable paper bags would hurt working families in my district, some of whom are already struggling to put food on the table,” Kopel said.

Next year, however, Povall said, businesses and consumers will be forced to find a replacement for the roughly 23 billion plastic bags that, according to estimates, are used in New York in a year. The fee would help prevent the problem from shifting to paper pollution by encouraging shoppers to instead use reusable bags. “The Nassau County Legislature is purposely hurting the environment now, and that’s very clear,” he said. “We’ll be working countywide to raise awareness, and hopefully we can get them to realize that the majority of people are in favor of doing something about this problem.”

Mulé said that Nassau should follow Suffolk’s lead — last year, the county enacted a 5-cent fee on plastic and paper bags. It has led to an 80 percent reduction in the use of single-use bags in Suffolk stores, according to the Food Industry Alliance of New York State, a statewide trade association representing the grocery industry.

“Experts agree Suffolk County’s 5-cent fee achieved the desired result — widespread changes in behavior that resulted in 1.1 billion fewer disposable paper and plastic bags being used by consumers last year,” Mulé said.

Curran said she was reviewing her options. “I would say anything we could do to encourage the use of reusable bags, I’m all for it,” she said.

Mulé had sought a fee on plastic bags, but the Republican majority blocked a vote on her legislation. After the announcement that plastic bags would be banned statewide, Mulé said she would drop her bill.

Povall told the Herald that businesses will likely raise prices to cover the costs of paper bags, which are more expensive than plastic, and that a fee could protect the merchants.

Lisa Umansky, owner of Polka Dot Pound Cake in Rockville Centre, said she didn’t know how a fee would affect her store, which only uses paper. However, she said, “We’re actually thinking of offering a tote to our customers as a free gift with a certain purchase that they can hopefully then get into the habit of reusing when they come in here, and maybe eliminate shopping bags.”

Raising Voices USA, a Rockville Centre-based civic engagement group, handed out about 70 reusable bags during a cleanup at the village’s Smith Pond and Reverend Morgan Days Park last Saturday.

“I think it’s really disappointing that we’re not going to take advantage and really confront this as an opportunity to develop and do more and really make changes that are going to impact our children,” said Emma Travers, who co-founded the group. “I’m hopeful that with continued pressure, more people are going to understand that this is something that we really have to act on.”