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Bottle Bill Obstruction Continues to Frustrate Broad-Based Support Effort

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Thursday, June 21, 2012

The widely popular move to update the Massachusetts Bottle Bill (H890 in the House, S1650 in the Senate) has been dealt another blow by the powerful committee in whose hands the measure’s fate resides. The bill, which would update the decades-old recycling program to require deposits on non-carbonated beverages such as juices, coffee beverages and bottled water, has once again been sent out for “further study” by the Joint Committee on Telecom, Utilities and Energy.

Supporters of the updated bill have claimed that its passage would enable the recycling of an additional one billion bottles annually in the Commonwealth, and have expressed disgust, anger and disbelief at the committee’s continued refusal to allow it to come up for a vote when they say it would likely pass in both chambers.

“Burying this bill today shows how profoundly out of touch a few legislators on this one committee are with their constituents,” said MassPIRG executive director Janet Domenitz, who lamented the June 15 decision as the latest in a 14-year legislative slog that has been continually opposed by the liquor lobby and other special interests in the state. “The bill has been studied, restudied, and studied once again. Seventy-seven percent of the public supports it [according to a January, 2011 poll by MassINC], a majority of legislators (105) are on record endorsing it, and 208 cities and towns have passed resolutions in favor of it.”

“[T]he only explanation for what happened on Beacon Hill today is that the corporate special interests are in control,” said Massachusetts Sierra Club Director James McCaffrey. “This committee is ignoring the governor, our cities and towns, the public, and a bipartisan majority in both houses who want to actually vote on updating the Bottle Bill. At this point, this is no longer just about the Bottle Bill, it’s about democracy not functioning on Beacon Hill because of a few powerful people.”

There are strong supporters of the bill in both the State House and Senate, and primary sponsor Alice Wolf (D-Cambridge) and others have not left it for dead. Wolf, when contacted for comment, stated, “Legislators and advocates are continuing to work to get the updated bill to the floor for a vote.”

Though, as McCaffrey argues, when a bill is “sent off for study” it is essentially just tabled until the next legislative session (and likely not actually “studied” at all), there are procedural tools that might be enacted to drag the bill back out of “study,” or its supporters might be able to add its text to another bill as an amendment. In any case, after 14 years of such non-study (the bill was introduced in 1998), longtime advocates like McCaffrey and Domenitz are understandably frustrated.

“The Bottle Bill is the most effective recycling incentive program in Massachusetts,” McCaffrey says flatly. “If a bottle is covered by it, it has an 80 percent chance of being recycled. If a bottle is not covered, it is 80 percent likely to wind up in a municipal landfill.”

Opponents compare the added deposit cost on beverages to a tax, and argue that retailers will face difficulties with managing the resulting higher volumes of returnables that the bill will create. They believe that any cost increase to consumers is counterproductive to the overall goal of extricating the Commonwealth from a now years-long economic slump, and suggest that efforts should instead be focused on expanding curbside recycling programs.

Rep. John Keenan (D-Salem), the committee co-chair, did not respond to efforts to contact him, but Keenan has been quoted as saying that he sent the bill back to study because he did not want to enact anything that amounted to a new tax.

Other committee members did not agree.

“Seeing so much support from some members of the business community, municipal officials, activists, it’s incredibly disappointing,” said Sen. James Eldridge (D-Acton). “And … the public gets frustrated with the Legislature when there is such a grassroots effort to pass a common sense bill and it gets put into study.” The committee’s other co-chair, Senator Ben Dowling (D-Pittsfield), who voted against sending the bill to study, said he had been working with other legislators to expand it and was “disappointed by the committee’s decision.”

Wolf, who is giving up her seat after the current legislative session, told the State House News wire she was not ready to hold a wake for H890 but was “adamant that she would try to get a vote on the bill before the end of formal sessions next month.”

“I’m not going to be around next session,” she was quoted as saying. “We’re not talking about next session.”

“We will leave no stone unturned between now and July 31 [the end of the current legislative session],” Domenitz wrote in an email to the Advocate.

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