News and Features: Online exclusives
Bottle deposit provisions tucked into jobs bill
July 20, 2012
STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE
Thrilling supporters and puzzling opponents of the idea, the state Senate on Thursday quietly tucked a controversial expansion of the state’s bottle deposit law into a bill designed to promote economic development and job creation.
Under the amendment, iced tea, water and juice bottles would be added to the types of containers that have a 5-cent redeemable deposit when the bottle or can is recycled at a specific location. The amendment excludes liquor bottles, wine bottles and dairy-product bottles. Gov. Deval Patrick supports the idea.
The move by Senate leaders gave new life to a proposal leading Senate Democrats this year trashed but which proponents say is an overdue amendment to the law. The proposal’s fate will eventually lie with a six-member House-Senate conference committee.
Senate President Therese Murray deflected questions about a change of heart after the Senate voted 22-15 in May to send the issue to study during its debate on the fiscal 2013 budget.
“The bottle bill would have passed last time. They had the votes,” Murray told the News Service. Pressed on why it was sent to study if a majority supported the measure, Murray said, “There was a roll call at the time and people wanted to move, but it had the same number of people supporting it this time as it did last time.”
Sen. Robert Hedlund, who offered the bottle bill amendment on Thursday to the economic development bill and pushed the issue two months ago during the budget debate, said he could not explain why he had more success this time.
“I can’t speak for people who co-sponsor legislation and then vote to derail legislation, but what I understood from some key Democrats who were supporters of the bottle bill the votes where there,” Hedlund said. “I can’t rationalize that at all. I wouldn’t be able to even conjure up an explanation. It makes no sense, other than the fact that some people around here are afraid to vote on things sometimes”
And they didn’t vote Thursday either, when Murray gaveled quickly through the amendment before Hedlund or anyone else spoke up.
House Speaker Robert DeLeo views the added deposits paid by consumers as a tax, and for that reason Murray said she could not predict whether it would remain in a final bill. A House-controlled committee in June sent the bottle bill to study.
“I don’t know. The Speaker has said he will not do any additional taxes or fees,” Murray said.
Hedlund, however, said he believes the speaker’s opposition is poorly rooted in the contention that a redeemable deposit is the same as a tax or fee.
“I respect the speaker’s opinion, but I think on that particular argument I think he’s kind of out on a limb by himself. I don’t think that argument holds any water. It’s a voluntary transaction, it’s a deposit. When I return my containers I get my money back. When I pay my sales tax, I don’t get my money back,” Hedlund said.
MASSPIRG Executive Director Janet Domenitz said it was the first time the bill had passed through either chamber. The group recently claimed that it had polled the entire legislature and found that a slim majority in both chambers supports the bottle bill,
“It’s not a surprise that the Senate would hear the voice of 77 percent of the public,” Domenitz told the News Service. “It’s certainly not a surprise that such a widely supported common sense measure would be adopted.”
The amendment is the same as the updated bottle bill that has been filed repeatedly, Domenitz said. As past bills had, it includes a small business exemption and a measure that gives redemption centers more reimbursement for handling the recyclables, Domenitz said.
“That fee has not moved since 1991 so in the last 10 years half of the redemption centers have closed,” Domenitz said. “They can’t afford to operate.”
Asked about the lack of debate on the bill, which passed on a voice vote, Domenitz said, “It’s been pending for 14 years. I believe the issues have been vetted.”
Domenitz was optimistic about the bill’s future now as part of the economic development bill. “For a long time it’s been stuck. It has legs. It has wheels. I think it’s an unstoppable bill,” Domenitz said. She said, “We think our time has finally come.”
Opponents of the expanded bottle bill, which include food and beverage companies, have said that it is an outdated method of increasing recycling and assert that expanding curbside recycling is a more comprehensive method of boosting recycling.
Mass Food Association President Chris Flynn, speaking on behalf of a group called Real Recycling, noted in a statement following the vote that the Senate rejected the proposal a month ago and it was also rejected by the Legislature's Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities and energy.
“Bottle bill expansion is not only bad for businesses and consumers, but it is bad for jobs and has no place in a bill aimed at creating them," Flynn said. "The idea of including this job killing amendment in an economic development bill is puzzling. An expanded bottle bill would impact nearly 4,000 high quality beverage industry jobs in the Commonwealth and cost businesses and consumers money, all while hardly impacting our environment."
One of the bill’s supporters, Sen. Benjamin Downing (D-Pittsfield), told the News Service there was not a push from leadership to pass the bill.
“A little bit of a surprise that there was no call for a roll call or a debate,” Downing said.
Asked about the bottle bill’s chances of surviving a conference committee, Downing said, “I think there’s strong support among the membership. I think it will depend on who the conferees are and what we hear from the House.”