“This bill is LONG overdue, as was finally demonstrated by the
drama-less way in which it passed.” — Online comment by “Ksiebert”
following a news story about the Senate passing the expanded bottle
bill last week. So far my favorite sentence of 2012.
But to get the humor,
you may have to have been at the Statehouse during the last week of
July in some election year, as the Legislature prepares to leave for
Bills that were filed
by legislators right after the last election, and scheduled for
hearings the next spring, have been sent to “studies,” or voted on
by one branch and “held” by the other. Through the two-year
legislative session, our representatives pass an annual budget, a
few pieces of urgent legislation, maybe, and minor items like liquor
licenses for communities. They also hang out in their offices with
their staff, which does constituent services.
Then, in midsummer, as
the session draws to a close, when almost no one is paying
attention, many of the more controversial bills come tumbling out of
their committees and their studies to be taken up quickly, often
attached to more popular bills or traded for a yes vote on another
legislator’s bill. There is sometimes a short debate and even a roll
call, if someone demands it, but often the issue is just gaveled
through on a “voice vote” (nothing recorded). Statehouse reporters
are overwhelmed by all the sudden activity/chaos and can’t tell us
everything that is going on; even if they try, we can’t hope to
follow it all.
Then legislators go
home in August; if they have a challenge, they can campaign until
November while their opponents normally have to compete while
working full time, and often can’t expose how the legislator voted
on controversial issues because there was no roll call. Take the
bottle bill expansion, the subject of this essay.
The original bottle
bill, with its refundable deposit on soda and beer bottles, was
passed in 1982; a repeal referendum was placed on the ballot that
November, and the voters chose to keep it — democracy in action.
For the past 12 years,
MassPIRG has filed an expansion of the bottle bill to cover water,
juice and sports drinks. The bill, apparently considered more
controversial than the original, had its hearings and yet was never
brought to the floor of either House for a vote. The only
conceivable reason for this is that most legislators agree that they
don’t want to be recorded on this, either way. So, every session, it
dies without due process.
Until last Thursday
night, when it was adopted as an amendment to another long-delayed
“jobs bill,” which according to the State House News Service, is
“aimed at stirring job creation and economic development,
authorizing more than $1 billion in borrowing for energy efficiency
investments, and providing tax credits to startup enterprises.”
Apparently, no senator
wants to vote against a “jobs bill” (even if state government has
little idea what it’s doing in this arena). The amendment was
quickly attached with no debate on a voice vote, and the entire
package was passed unanimously by the Senate.
Hence my delight at the
description above, “the drama-less way in which it was passed.”
Certainly, when after 12 years of being too controversial for debate
(“long overdue”), an issue rises out of the void and is whipped
through in seconds without debate, there is no drama.
The House, opposed to
raising taxes this year, had already quietly rejected the expanded
bottle bill as a new tax. I’ve always differentiated between a tax
and a fee, and had considered the bottle bill deposit a different
category, since the nickel deposit can be reclaimed when we return
the bottles. However, if we don’t reclaim it, most of our nickel
becomes something called “escheat,” a contribution to the state
The public debate, in
the past, was about the environment, but Gov. Deval Patrick has been
arguing for the bill because the state needs the money. This
attitude does make the deposit seem more like a tax.
I’ve never understood
why people would throw out cans and bottles, letting the state keep
their money. I suspect that those who buy water in plastic bottles
instead of getting it free from their faucets are even less likely
to care about their nickels. This is obviously the reason for the
governor’s glee about his estimated $20 million of new revenues. He
knows that most water bottles, even more than soda cans and bottles,
will go into the landfills and he can keep the change!
I don’t support the
bottle bill because it is an “anti-jobs” intrusion on food stores
who shouldn’t be expected to handle bottles of all sizes, shapes and
materials in their limited space. Curbside recycling is the fair
environmental alternative, and I don’t understand why all consumers
don’t voluntarily participate now.
I hope the Senate’s
impulsive amendment to make our local grocer process our sticky
juice bottle is dropped from the “jobs bill”; maybe then we can have
an open, transparent, democratic debate on environmental
responsibility next year.