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Of bag bans, SAFE Act and more: Time to check the water in brain-dead Albany

Rod Watson

It’s well-known that the drinking water in Flint, Mich., was contaminated with lead, which can cause brain damage.

Has anyone checked the water in Albany?

There must be a reason New York’s political class keeps following the same playbook despite repeatedly getting thrown for a loss when the unforeseen – because it never looked for them – consequences suddenly pop up for all to see. The pattern then repeats, as if the capital is immune to Einstein’s definition of insanity.

New York’s plastic bag ban is the latest example. Set to take effect March 1, it bans the reusable plastic grocery bags that are handy for everything from lining the kitchen garbage can to carrying lunch to work.

But the new law also may ban much more, thanks to the slipshod way it was cobbled together by state leaders behind closed doors with little public scrutiny. It was "three men in a room" redux, except this time the Senate majority leader was a woman.

How confusing is their masterwork? It has managed to unite store owners and environmentalists in opposition, albeit for different reasons. No one seems to know exactly which plastic bags are even subject to the law. Is it reusable tote bags made of heavier plastic? How about cloth bags with plastic handles?

The confusion even extends to the 5-cent surcharge cities and counties can permit stores to charge for paper bags given to customers instead of plastic, in the bid to rid us of the dreaded pollutant.

While insisting the law is unambiguous and suggesting critics are looking for excuses, state officials are simultaneously pondering a Q&A guidebook to clarify their legislative handiwork – albeit, after the fact.

Questions, but no answers on state law to ban plastic bags

If this all sounds disturbingly familiar, it should. It’s much the same way Albany passed the SAFE Act in 2013, using a "message of necessity" to rush it through in the middle of the night before anyone had a chance to digest it.

The unintended results then were equally predictable: Enforcing that law’s ridiculous seven-round magazine limit is now a matter of local discretion after two federal courts said it was unconstitutional but their rulings aren’t binding across the state. That means gun owners don’t know from one locality to the next whether they still might be prosecuted under that provision.

That’s on top of the law’s mental health provisions that ensnare gun owners seeking routine medical attention, or the headline-grabbing ban on "assault weapons" based solely on their cosmetic features, not on how they shoot or what ammunition they fire.

But instead of learning from that fiasco, state leaders repeated the same rushed, behind-closed-doors process to produce a plastic bag law that similarly raises more questions than it answers.

In short, it was another clinic in how not to govern.

And the State Education Department must have taken notes, proving the contagion has spread beyond elected officials. After originally approving the Lockport district’s use of controversial facial recognition technology that would have cameras scan individuals to enhance school security, the department has backtracked and now is blocking its implementation.

Why? It seems there are too many problems neither the district nor the department thought of, including the fact that the technology doesn’t work well on young people whose facial structure is still changing as they grow. Nor is it as accurate when identifying women or people of color – as if the latter group needs any more reason to be suspicious of the police state.

Especially telling is the fact that Lockport, in a desperate bid to win state approval, decided not to program into the system the photos of suspended students so that officials could be alerted if they return to school property. Given a reliable technology, those are the very faces you would want in such a system because they are the ones more likely to have grudge against the school and to want revenge.

Now the State Legislature – talk about ironies – may have to step in with a moratorium until the technology can be further tested. That’s right, the same Legislature that rushed through the plastic bag ban and the SAFE Act without thinking them through is now pondering how to make schools slow down and think this thing through.

The real moratorium should be on doing things in back rooms in a rush with no chance for real deliberation, public feedback and the possibility of drafting a good policy the first time around. But what the heck, they still get paid no matter how many times it takes them to get it right – or even if they never do.

On the other hand, we keep voting for them. So maybe we’re the ones who should stop drinking the water.

Lockport schools push to activate contentious facial recognition security system

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