By Andy Metzger
STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE
STATE HOUSE -- An opponent of the proposal to expand the bottle bill said Thursday he prefers trying to hammer out a consensus alternative to the initiative petition heading towards the November ballot.
House Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy Chairman John Keenan, a Salem Democrat who has announced he will not run for re-election this year, said bridging the divide over the perennial issue is something he hopes to accomplish this year.
"I don't know what the over-under is on this ballot initiative. But I will echo Representative Peake, as well. I think the petition process, the ballot initiative is a very sloppy way to do legislation," Keenan said at a hearing on the initiative petition Thursday. He said, "I would much prefer to work together with you folks and folks on the other side to hammer out some sort of bill that has a consensus."
Rep. Sarah Peake, a proponent of expanding the bottle bill so there are deposits on more than just beer and carbonated beverages, described the referendum heading toward the November ballot as "more draconian" than what the Legislature could produce.
"I'm concerned about beer bottlers. I'm concerned about the juice industry, but if we let this go to the ballot, those concerns go into the wind," Peake said. She said, "Let's see if we can do what we're elected to do as legislators."
Opponents of expanding the deposit law have backed an alternative (H 2513/ S 379) filed by Sen. Michael Moore, a Millbury Democrat, and Rep. John Binienda, a Worcester Democrat, that would phase out the 5-cent deposit on cans and bottles, replacing it with a 1-cent fee paid by distributors and bottlers, funding recycling initiatives.
The scope of the bottle redemption law has been a perennial issue on Beacon Hill, as supporters of expansion say it will reduce litter by closing a nonsensical exemption for water, iced tea and juice bottles. Opponents say bottle deposits are an outdated and inefficient method to boost recycling, and one that burdens retailers with collecting the old bottles.
"What other retail business needs to take back its customers garbage on the selling floor?" asked Bob Selby, owner of Kappy's liquor stores in Peabody and Danvers. He told the News Service, "We get snakes; we get syringes; we get used condoms."
Gardner Mayor Mark Hawke, whose city has a "pay as you throw" trash pickup and "single stream" recycling, said cigarette butts and lottery tickets make up the majority of the trash he sees and a bottle bill expansion will only drive more people north of the border, to New Hampshire, to shop.
Bottle bill proponents say curbside pickup is only one aspect of preventing litter and boosting recycling, and the bill's expansion is aimed at beverages people drink on-the-go, which is why liquor and wine are exempt. They argue the 5-cent deposit will create a financial incentive to recycle those bottles.
Peake said she'd spoken to a member of a dune buggy association, who participated in a beach cleanup and said 99 percent of the trash they picked up was abandoned water bottles.
"Beer and going to the beach go together like peanut butter and jelly, but they were not picking up beer cans," Peake said.
Though a bottle bill expansion cleared the Senate on a voice vote last session, it has never passed the House and never gone to a recorded vote. Keenan has previously voted against the measure.
"This is my last term, and this is probably one of the unfinished pieces of business that I don't want to leave behind," Keenan said.
Sierra Club Massachusetts Chapter lobbyist Phil Sego and MassPIRG Executive Director Janet Domenitz said the alternative proposed by Moore and Binienda is not a compromise.
"Senator Moore's bill has been put out as a quote-unquote alternative, and it repeals the bottle bill. So if that's someone's idea of a conversation, then we're not for it," Domenitz said.
"We'd love to talk. We've had no communication from the opponents that they even want to talk, and we have been saying for - oh gosh - 12 years, 'Let's talk,'" Sego told the News Service.
Sego said he has spoken with Keenan a number of times, and said, "He has not indicated any movement towards a compromise . . . It would be great to get together with him, people on the other side of the table, other groups."
Lawmakers are apprehensive about the ballot process, which has been used in years past as leverage and as legislating, creating both the law decriminalizing marijuana and establishing legal, medical marijuana.
"We've seen what happened with the medical marijuana, where you let that go to the ballot, and while I supported that concept, I think there were some issues in how that was implemented," said Rep. Josh Cutler, a Duxbury Democrat.
"We are preparing to go to the ballot," said Sego. He said if a bottle bill expansion becomes law in time, he believes he and others could convince the petitioners to withdraw the ballot initiative.
"Absent some action on our part before late June, early July, this question will go to the ballot," said Rep. Jonathan Hecht, a Watertown Democrat, and the lead sponsor of a separate bill (H 2943) to expand the bottle deposit law. He said, "We're all going to be asked by our voters to take a stand on this issue."