Democracy, Not Its Subversion, Produced Latest Defeat of Expanded Bottle Bill

Thursday, June 28, 2012

To hear the advocates of an expanded Bottle Bill tell it, the only thing preventing the bill from becoming law this session is a cadre of legislative leaders “beholden to special interests.”

A coalition of groups that wants to extend the five-cent refundable deposit on beer and soda containers to fruit juices and other non-carbonated, bottled and canned drinks claims that a majority of legislators support an expanded Bottle Bill, and that such a bill would pass if it were put to a full vote in the House and Senate.

By not allowing such a vote, legislative leaders are guilty, at least in the eyes of this coalition, of sabotaging the democratic process.

Here for example is what James McCaffrey, director of the Massachusetts chapter of the Sierra Club, told the State House News Service on June 14:

“There’s only one reason why they won’t bring it (an expanded Bottle Bill) to the floor for a vote.  They are beholden to the special interests that don’t want them to bring it to the floor for a vote.  Because they know they don’t have the votes.  They’ll lose.  If this comes to the floor for a vote, we have the votes, so they’re using a procedural maneuver to subvert democracy right here in the birthplace of freedom.”

The so-called “procedural maneuver” consisted of the vote earlier in the day by the legislature’s Joint Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy to send all matters dealing with an expansion of the Bottle Bill to study, effectively ending the initiative in this (2011-12) legislative session.  Ten members of the committee were recorded in favor of the study motion, seven opposed.

Janet Domenitz, executive director of MassPIRG, called that vote a “mockery,” and said the committee was “flying in the face of the sentiment of just about everyone in the Commonwealth,” according to the State House News Service.

It’s easy to understand why the bigger-and-better-Bottle-Bill folks are frustrated and angry.  They’ve knocked themselves out for 14 years, seven long legislative sessions, trying to get a law on the books they sincerely believe is needed to reduce waste and protect the environment, and they just came up short again, crushed at a moment when they felt so close to the prize.  (Reportedly, 82 of the 160 members of the House and 23 of the 40 members of the Senate support this legislation.)

But after the emotions are spent, reality sits there unmoved, staring you in the face, cheerfully willing to tell its story.

In this instance, reality says the majorities in both branches in favor of an expanded Bottle Bill were slight and tentative.  They were somewhat like a good friend who too readily agrees to testify for you in court, but turns up mysteriously ill on the day of trial.

Reality says that, when concrete measures to expand the Bottle Bill were put to an actual vote, ten out of seventeen legislators voted no; then reality asks, “Tell me, please, what was ‘undemocratic’ about that vote?”

Reality says the Bottle Bill coalition had the misfortune of launching its 2012 offensive in contravention of the truth that “timing is everything in life,” that the aftermath of the worst economy since the Great Depression was not an auspicious time to push something your opponents were sure to label a new tax on consumers, a new and costly burden on Massachusetts retailers, and a competitive handicap for businesses in communities near the borders with neighboring states.  (As Chris Flynn, president of the Massachusetts Food Association, succinctly told the Associated Press: “In a tough economy the last thing Massachusetts consumers need is another tax and higher grocery prices to pay for a costly recycling system that doesn’t work.”)

Lastly, reality says that, in an election year, a major responsibility of a legislative leader is to shield his or her members from making a difficult vote on what is perceived, rightly or wrongly, as a tax increase -- and especially when that measure is not a budget-balancing imperative but rather a new-policy option. 

In every democracy, policy has always been shaped by politics.  We should be careful in wishing it to be otherwise.

POSTSCRIPT:  On June 20, the Massachusetts Recycling Challenge, a collaboration between the Massachusetts Food Association and the Massachusetts Beverage Association, announced it would fund a two-year program, at a cost of $533,000, to study and test new recycling initiatives.

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