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Lawmakers Look to Divert Funds Before State Has Money in Hand

A proposed 5-cent fee on single-use plastic bags could bring in $23M for lead abatement, but the funds are being diverted — even before the new legislation is law

plastic bags
Credit: Creative Commons

The Legislature is poised today to impose a 5-cent fee on single-use carry-out bags, but the money may not end up in a lead abatement program as originally intended.

In the Democratic-controlled Legislature’s proposed budget for the next fiscal year, language has been inserted to divert $23 million in funds raised by the fee. Instead of reducing exposure to lead, it appears the money will go to the general fund.

Diversions are a rite of the lawmakers’ annual budget deliberations, but typically the raid on funds comes from established programs with their own source of revenue. Here, the diversion is being established before the fee on plastic and paper bags is law.

The single use carry-out bag legislation is controversial on its own merits, a legislative bid to reduce a huge source of litter and waste that mars beaches, oceans, and all sorts of landscapes.

The bill (A-3267/S2600) only won approval from the two budget committees this past Monday, emerging as the preferred way of dealing with the issue over a competing bill (A-4040) that would phase out plastic bags.

Ban the bag

Some environmentalists favor banning plastic bags, but the New Jersey Food Council argued a fee on both paper and plastic bags has proven more successful in reducing single-use carry-out bags. More importantly, the fee proposal also preempts local initiatives to ban plastic bags, a growing trend in New Jersey.

Under the proposal, one cent would go to the store operator and most of the rest of the money would have been allocated to lead-abatement programs, which have typically been underfunded in the state, according to advocates. They also have been subject to diversions of funds to rid homes of lead paint under the former Christie administration.

“This is not about plastic bags or lead, it is a scam to grab money for the budget,’’ said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, an opponent of the fee bill. ‘’This means that $23 million for lead abatement will be used to plug holes in the budget even before this plastic bag fee will be passed.’’

But Linda Doherty, president of the food council, said even if the money is diverted, the bill solves the problem from its perspective. “There will be a significant reduction in the disposal of plastic and paper bags,’’ Doherty said.

Doug O’Malley, director of Environment New Jersey, disputed that assessment, saying the bill is a backdoor way to preempt cities and towns from enacting their own bans. “It’s bad public policy,’’ he said.

At this juncture, it remains to uncertain how the bill will end up, with various amendments floating around among lawmakers, including one to hold off imposing the new surcharge until next June.

Others questioned whether the projections of the new fee raising only $23 million are too conservative, noting that last year Americans used more than 380 billion plastic bags. The Office of Legislative Services did not compile a fiscal note on the legislation.

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