Bottle Bill Expanders Have a Problem: the Law's a Cash Cow for the State

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

The longest, continuous battle in Massachusetts politics has to be the one over the expansion of the bottle bill.

For as long as I can remember, every year in the legislature, there’s been a serious-but-ultimately-unsuccessful push to have the 5-cent-per-bottle deposit go beyond beer and soda to bottled water, sports drinks, iced tea, juices and the like. 
In May of this year, for instance, the Massachusetts Senate passed a Fiscal Year 2015 state budget with an amendment seeking to expand the Bottle Bill.  Because the House budget, passed one month earlier, had no such amendment, it fell to the six-member House-Senate budget conference committee to decide if the measure would remain in the final version of the budget. In conference, the House viewpoint prevailed: the amendment was ditched.

The coalition of groups working to expand the bottle bill was ready with a good fallback: it had gathered more than enough signatures on petitions to put the expansion on a statewide ballot, which is where it will be -- as Question 2 -- on Tuesday, Nov. 4.
Proponents are confident of victory.  Says Janet Domenitz, executive director of MassPIRG: “Every poll shows that over three-quarters of the public support updating the bottle bill.”

Opponents are ready to fight. And they have the resources to fight long and hard.  Nicole Giambusso, a spokesman for an anti-expansion group, told the Boston Herald the other day:  “We’re going to run a campaign that’s statewide and highly visible.  We definitely want to get our message out that there’s a better way to recycle.”
I may be a tree hugger from the Sixties, and I may be a lock to vote yes on Question 2, but that doesn’t mean I don’t see trouble up ahead for Bottle Bill expanders.

Their Achilles Heel, I believe, is the bulging state account that holds unclaimed, or “abandoned,” bottle deposits.
According to reliable estimates, between $37 million and $38 million will have accrued in that account by the end of FY 15, on June 30, 2015. 

That’s one awesome pile of nickels.
A windfall for the state in unclaimed deposits is not a new phenomenon.  Almost every year since the enactment of the Bottle Bill in 1982, the state has raked in tens of millions of dollars this way.

I think the voters of the Commonwealth will also have difficulty swallowing this number: if the Bottle Bill were expanded, it has been estimated that the unclaimed deposit account could grow by as much as $20 million per year. 
When Bottle Bill foes complain that the law is outmoded, and that it has created an everlasting, hidden tax and a spending crutch for the legislature and governor to quietly lean on, it’s hard to dismiss those arguments out of hand.

Now consider Charlie Baker, the Republican candidate for governor, who's running partly on a platform of economic growth and job creation.  He says he wants to promote small businesses; make state government more affordable, accountable, and business-friendly; and give the people of Massachusetts a government “that’s as thrifty, creative, and hard-working as they are.”
It’s no stretch to see Baker joining the fray against the expansion of the Bottle Bill and using it as an example of the government’s dead thumb on the economy.

First, of course, the Baker campaign will conduct internal polling on Question 2 and all of the other November ballot questions.  If that polling shows support for expansion is soft and trending softer, Baker could leap to exploit the issue.
In that scenario, I imagine him saying something like: “Tell the leaders of the Democratic Party we know how to spend our money better than they do.  It’s our money!  Let’s use it to stimulate the economy, not maintain the government status quo.”

BAKER POSTSCRIPT:  Late on Wednesday afternoon, July 9, Charlie Baker told the State House News Service he would oppose Question 2.  The service quoted Baker as saying, "I view the Bottle Bill expansion as mostly a money grab by the state, and I think there are far better and less expensive ways for us to continue to recycle and to be effective."  His comments were reported several hours after this blog item was posted.


Anonymous said...

This is an interesting theory, but more like something out of the imagination of big business than reality. For example, the strongest proponents of the bottle bill are environmentalists and public interest groups, like the League of Women Voters MA, the Sierra Club, MASSPIRG, and MassAudubon. These groups don't get a nickel if you choose to forfeit your deposit, and in fact, prefer that you actually do redeem your empty bottle. It's laughable to think that anyone thinks that these groups are the state's "fundraisers."

The only real reason why bottlers don't like the bottle bill is simple: profits.They're whining because they don't want the responsibility of dealing with the 3.5 Billion empty containers they sold, that if it wasn't for the bottle bill, wind up as litter and sent to landfills.

Paul Lauenstein said...

The opposition of the beverage industry to the Bottle Bill Update is a classic example of big money thwarting the will of the people. Their lobbyists have managed to keep the bill "bottled up" in committee on Beacon Hill for over a decade. Now that citizens have gathered over 150,000 signatures to get the issue on the ballot, they will spend a lot more money to try to defeat it. What a shame they do not use their resources instead to modernize the bottle redemption system as Maine has done with their convenient, efficient "CLYNK" redemption system. See: Because it's convenient, Mainers recycle 90% of their empties and recover 90% of their deposits, and tourists who bring in needed revenues can enjoy a state free of unsightly empties.

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