Bottle bill expansion bottled up

 

Greenfield Recorder 08/06/2012, Page A01

By RICHIE DAVIS

Recorder Staff

After trying for 14 years to expand the Massachusetts bottle bill to include the water, juice and sports drink containers that have swelled since the original 1982 legislation to be more than 30 percent of beverages sold here, the Legislature came close last week — but then saw its efforts trashed in a conference committee vote.

Last Monday’s late-night vote, which squeezed out the expanded bottle bill, came after House leaders — including Rep. Joseph Wagner, D-Chicopee — balked at the measure as a new “tax” on consumers. The bill was included part of economic development legislation that nearly unanimously OK’d an Aug. 11 and 12 sales-tax holiday and a two-year extension on state and local permits for developers whose projects have been delayed by the tight economy.

Proposals for the nickel deposit law to include other beverage containers have been stalled in committee for years under pressure from the Massachusetts Beverage Association, the Massachusetts Food Association and from House Speaker Robert DeLeo.

“This is a serious tax on consumers at the wrong time,” said Christopher Flynn, president of the Massachusetts Food Association, which represents retailers, manufacturers, and wholesalers in the supermarket and grocery industry.

Flynn, calling an updated law “a logistical nightmare,” said last month that expanding redemption centers and converting machines to accept different bottles could also cost the state’s retailers millions of dollars and smaller businesses may not be able to expand to handle the increased volume.

But state Rep. Paul Mark, D-Peru, who testified late last year on behalf of one of more than a dozen bills when they were aired by the Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy Committee, said most of the towns in his district were among the 200 communities across the state supporting an expanded bill as a way to not have to pay for cleaning up beverage containers littered across roadways and elsewhere.

“It’s a complicated process,” said the freshman legislator. A member of the Committee on the Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture, Mark said, the bills seem like they ought to have been reviewed by the committee. In addition to colleagues who he heard attack an expanded bill as a tax, Rep. Richard Bastien, R-Gardner, called for the existing bottle law to be repealed altogether.

“It isn’t a tax, because I don’t know of any tax you get back. I didn’t get a lot of push against it” from constituents, and instead heard support for updating the bill.

Seeing the bill headed to another year of defeat, Sen. Robert Hedlund, R-Weymouth, proposed that an expanded bottle bill be attached to the Senate budget, and when that failed, managed to attach it to the Economic Development bill, according to Sen. Stanley Rosenberg, D-Amherst, a longtime supporter of the measure who voted to see it included in the so-called “jobs bill.”

Rosenberg said he’s seen pressure on both sides of the issue — from businesses that say they can’t afford to handle the additional volume of containers, and from bottlers and other business associations that buck any increased government regulation or interference, but also from environmental groups that say it should be expanded.

When that bill went to a conference committee to iron out House and Senate differences, that six-member panel’s chair, Wagner, voiced strong opposition against the bottle bill as a tax and it died, according to Sen. Stephen Brewer, D-Barre. Brewer, who as the Senate Ways and Means chairman is a member of the conference committee but would not elaborate on the discussion “My instincts are that we’re getting closer to having an expanded bottle bill, maybe as early as next year,” said Barre, who figures there were 22 votes for and 18 against it in the Senate it, had the bill itself come up for a vote. Brewer, who voted to call for a study, said he’s still concerned about the impact on small stores — despite an exemption of stores of less than 4,000 square feet.

“That messaging has to be done,” Brewer said. “There’s a strong incentive for doing this, just for roadside litter. There’s a negative push on it, but I think it gets less and less credibility as the years go on. ” Another argument raised against the bottle bill, according to Rosenberg, was that taking non-deposit recyclable bottles out of the waste stream could destabilize municipal recycling programs. Rosenberg said that studies by the state Department of Environmental Protection debunk that argument.

Organizations like the Franklin County Solid Waste Management District see that as a false issue, however.

“I support the bottle bill,” said Amy Donovan of the Franklin County consortium.

“This would drastically increase recycling.”

Claire Sullivan, executive director of South Shore Recycling Cooperative, said “I’ve been working on this for 12 years, and I’m really, really aggravated. The industry has twisted the arms of leadership in the House, and possibly the Senate, and they’re just parroting what the industry is feeding them.”

She added, “It’s a tax already. My tax dollars are paying for my town to have to clean up the parks, ballparks, and sides of the road. We are subsidizing the industry’s trash, and we’re just asking them to step up and pay for that.”

The issue is much bigger than simply bottles, said James McCaffrey of the Sierra Club — one of several groups that had originally sought a ballot question on the issue that’s believed to have 77 percent public support, but backed down in hopes of the Legislature taking action.

“It’s a failure of the democratic process, in my view,” he said. “It really doesn’t make any sense to us that you can have a measure like this that’s so wildly popular and you simply cannot bring it to the floor for a vote.”

McCaffrey added, “There’s no question: We will not back down on this issue when we have this kind of support.”

You can reach Richie Davis at rdavis@recorder.com or413-772-0261, ext. 269