What Hurts Bottle Bill Expanders More: Ads that Lie or a Case that Doesn't Cut It?

Friday, October 10, 2014

On July 9, I posted an item on what I considered the weak point in the case for Question 2.  If interested, you can read it by clicking on: http://pretiminahan.blogspot.com/2014/07/bottle-bill-expanders-have-problem-laws.html

Question 2 on the November 4 ballot proposes to amend the Bottle Bill by requiring deposits on a wider array of beverage containers. 
Under the existing version of the Bottle Bill, we have to pay a five-cent deposit on every beer and soda can or bottle we buy. If Question 2 passes, we’ll have to pay deposits, as well, on containers for all non-alcoholic, non-carbonated drinks.

I said on July 9 that voters could reject Question 2 because: (a) tens of millions of dollars in container deposits go unclaimed every year, and (b) those unclaimed deposits wind up in the state’s general fund, where they support the overall functioning of our government.
“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,” I said.

I should have searched for the actual text of Question 2 before writing on this topic.  It was clearly a mistake not to…but I don’t know if it was a mistake so large as to negate my fundamental point, which was that voters are naturally skeptical of the effectiveness of government spending and reluctant to put new dollars in government hands.
If I had read the Question 2 text, I would have seen the subsection of the amended version of the Bottle Bill calling for creation of a stand-alone account to be known as the Clean Environment Fund.  All abandoned deposits collected under the Bottle Bill shall be deposited into this new fund, the subsection stipulates, and the fund “shall be used, subject to appropriation, for programs including but not limited to projects supporting the proper management of solid waste, water resource protection, parkland, urban forestry, air quality and climate protection.”

At first blush, the Clean Environment Fund looks like the perfect answer to those who complain that an expanded Bottle Bill will only give government more money to play with.  No longer would abandoned, or unclaimed, deposits go to the general fund, where they could be spent on anything.  Instead, they’d be sequestered and could be spent only on projects good for the environment.
Well, not exactly. 

The bill language contains that key phrase of lawmaking: subject to appropriation.  That means the legislature would have to vote specifically every year to authorize expenditures from the Clean Energy Fund on those enumerated environmental purposes: “the proper management of solid waste,” and so on.
In a bad year, a time when the state budget is running in the red, the legislature could vote to take money from the fund and spend it on something deemed more urgent -- health care or law enforcement, for example.

Even in a not-so-bad year, like the one we’re having now, the legislature could vote to take money from the fund and spend it on something like a larger workforce in the Department of Children and Families.  It would not be hard to make the argument that we need social workers to protect vulnerable kids more than we need new parks, say, in 20 different middle-class suburbs.
One has to wonder, also, about the elasticity of terms like “water resource protection,” “parkland,” “urban forestry,” and “climate protection.”  Legislators of a creative bent, which is to say any veteran rep or senator who knows her way around the budget process, could make a lot of projects in their districts fit those categories: a new road that happens to better protect an aquifer from salt run-off, new trees on Main Street, a new baseball diamond at the high school, solar panels at city hall to reduce the burning of oil to heat the building, etc.

Well over $30 million in container deposits will go unclaimed during the current fiscal year.   If the new version of the Bottle Bill becomes law, that figure could increase by as much as $20 million.
This past summer, proponents of expanding the Bottle Bill were touting polls indicating that 62% of Massachusetts voters favored the expansion.

Now that the polls have flipped, with 60% saying they oppose expansion, the “STOP Litter: YES on 2” group is blaming their declining prospects on a big-budget, deceptive advertising campaign by the “NO on Question 2: STOP Forced Deposits” group, which they say is just a front for the beverage and bottling industries.
That may be the case.  It could also be that voters are taking a close look at what an amended Bottle Bill would do and are thinking the results would be nebulous, burdensome, and not worth the costs.

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