Bottle bill expansion sidetracked on Beacon Hill

Supporters of expanding the bottle bill to cover more types of beverages were outraged by a committee vote yesterdaymorning that will likely torpedo the proposal until next January, when the next legislative session begins.

“This committee is flying in the face of the sentiment of just about everyone in the commonwealth, and it’s a mockery,” said bottle bill supporter Janet Domenitz, executive director of MassPIRG.

House Chairman of the Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy Rep. John Keenan, D-Salem, likened the five-cent bottle deposit to a tax, and said that was the reason he wanted to send the proposal for further study.

“I think the House and the Legislature has taken the prudent course of not increasing taxes,” Keenan said during committee meeting yesterday morning. “It is a recession. It is the Great Recession, and we’re trying to come out of it.”

The Legislature has held the line on tax hikes since raising the sales tax.

House Speaker Robert DeLeo has held a firm line against any new taxes or tax increases in the fiscal 2013 budget. Bottles and cans need to be recycled at redemption centers in order for consumers to recoup the deposit. The expansion was expected to bring in as much as $20 million in new state revenue from unreturned bottles.

The new bottle bill would expand the deposit program on beer and soda so that it also includes iced tea, fruit juice and other non-alcoholic, non-carbonated, bottled or canned drinks. Supporters of the proposal claim that it would reduce litter and the amount of waste sent to landfills. Opponents claim that stores do not have the capacity to handle an influx of newly returnable empties.

The study amendment passed by a vote of 10 to 7.

MassPIRG claimed that it had polled the entire Legislature and found that a slim majority in both chambers support the bottle bill, indicating that it might have passed if it was sent to the House or Senate floor. Sending the bill to study rather than recommending favorable or unfavorable action diminishes the bill’s chances of emerging.

A January 2011 poll by MassINC showed that 77 percent of people in Massachusetts support expanding the bottle bill.

Senate Committee Chairman Benjamin Downing, D-Pittsfield, who favors an expanded law and voted against the study, said he is disappointed.

Sen. Jamie Eldridge, D-Acton, a committee member who voted against sending it to study, was also disappointed with the decision.

“Seeing so much support from some members of the business community, municipal officials, activists, it’s incredibly disappointing,” Eldridge said. “And I think it adds a touch of cynicism to why 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 chances of the bill being pulled out of study and put up for a vote is unlikely, he said.

“So I don’t know if there will be an opportunity in the next six weeks to file it as an amendment to another bill or to bring it out of study. I think those things probably are unlikely, but they are possible.”

When asked if he would try to move the bill, Eldridge said, “That is something I will be talking to fellow legislators and advocates about next week.”

Environmentalists claim the proposal, first filed 14 years ago, has been stymied because businesses don’t want it.

A business and union coalition called Real Recycling for Massachusetts opposes the bottle bill expansion. According to a press release the coalition includes the Massachusetts Beverage Association, the Retailers Association of Massachusetts, Poland Spring Bottling Company and other interested businesses who said the state should expand curbside recycling rather than bottle deposits.

Last October, Domenitz and McCaffrey said they would seek legislative approval of the measure rather than continuing an effort to gather signatures for a ballot question. It’s unclear whether another ballot initiative will be launched for 2014.

On yesterday afternoon, McCaffrey said despite the setback, he is still hoping the bill is taken back up through the legislative process.

“We haven’t thought about that,” McCaffrey said. “As far as we’re concerned there are still options left in the legislature.”

Rep. Randy Hunt, R-Sandwich, said the state should look at more comprehensive recycling efforts, such as increasing the number of cities and towns that use a pay-as-you-throw trash collection system.

“If all of the towns would do that, it would be hugely helpful,” said Hunt, who voted for the study and said pay-as-you-throw had saved his town hundreds of thousands of dollars in trash fees.

The senators on the committee were split, while the House was more solidly in favor of the study. Sen. Marc Pacheco, D-Taunton, voted against the study, though he had previously moved for sending a similar proposal for study when it was raised during the Senate budget debate.