No drama but no debate, either
© by Barbara Anderson

The Salem News
Wednesday, July 25, 2012

“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 the summer/fall.

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 budget.

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.

The comments made and opinions expressed in her columns are those of Barbara Anderson
and do not necessarily reflect those of Citizens for Limited Taxation.

Barbara Anderson is executive director of Citizens for Limited Taxation. Her column appears weekly in the Salem News and other Eagle Tribune newspapers; bi-weekly in the Tinytown Gazette.

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