By Gintautas Dumcius
STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE
STATE HOUSE -- Beacon Hill lawmakers have been unable to reach a compromise for a bottle bill update as a deadline draws near, and groups opposed to the expansion and pro-update activists who are seeking to put the issue on the November ballot are inching closer to a potentially expensive fight in the fall.
"You have people really dug in to this issue, so I suppose it will go to a ballot question," said Sen. Robert Hedlund, a Weymouth Republican who has long pushed for an update to the law to cover more types of beverages.
After years of unsuccessful efforts in the Legislature, environmental groups such as MassPIRG and the Sierra Club are pushing the ballot initiative in an effort to boost recycling by expanding the 1983 deposit law and adding a five-cent deposit to all non-alcoholic non-carbonated drinks, except for beverages based on dairy products, infant formula or certain medicines. The ballot proposal also requires the state energy secretary to adjust the container deposit number every five years to reflect changes to the consumer price index.
Under the banner of Real Recycling for Massachusetts, chambers of commerce, package stores, bottling companies, and restaurants are opposing the initiative. They are instead pushing for curbside recycling and saying consumers would bear the burden of a bottle bill expansion after retailers and beverage distributors are hit with higher costs.
The final round of signatures for the ballot petition are due to local elections officials for certification at 5 p.m. Wednesday, and ballot proposal backers must then get the signatures to Secretary of State Bill Galvin by early July.
"If the Legislature wants to come up with a compromise that they feel is fair and get it to us before the deadline, we are definitely willing to work with the Legislature," said Phillip Sego, spokesman for the Sierra Club. "We're open to the idea of common ground . . . . But we are moving forward."
Earlier this year, Sen. Ben Downing and Rep. John Keenan, the chairmen of the Joint Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy, delegated the work of coming up with a bottle bill compromise to four lawmakers serving on a subcommittee.
The subcommittee, which initially set a date of June 1 for a report with recommendations, includes Rep. Jen Benson (D-Lunenberg), Rep. Randy Hunt (R-Sandwich), Sen. Jamie Eldridge (D-Acton) and Sen. Eileen Donoghue (D-Lowell).
The chairmen penned a June 17 letter to the four lawmakers, saying, "Due to recent conversations with you and your staff we are aware that, despite the Subcommittee's best efforts, you are at this time unable to reach a final consensus recommendation with all stakeholders."
The chairmen added that they understand the subcommittee is at "an impasse."
In the letter, Downing (D-Pittsfield) and Keenan (D-Salem) asked the subcommittee to provide a written report listing the stakeholder groups with summaries of their positions, the subcommittee's various meetings, draft recommendations prepared after stakeholder meetings, summaries of stakeholder responses to the draft recommendations, and an acknowledgement that the subcommittee is "unable to reach a consensus on its recommendations."
Downing and Keenan asked for the report to be submitted by Wednesday, June 25. "You have our commitment that Committee staff will continue your efforts so that the Committee can act on these bills in a timely manner," they wrote.
Before the chairmen reported the impasse, the subcommittee circulated some of its ideas to stakeholders.
The subcommittee, which has sought to keep its deliberations private, sent an outline of its draft recommendations to stakeholders for comment on June 3. The subcommittee has not publicly released the draft recommendations.
According to the outline of the draft recommendations obtained by the News Service, the bottle bill would be expanded to all beverage containers, including water, sports drinks, teas and juice, excluding larger containers. Small retailers could opt out, the draft report's outline said.
The draft subcommittee report also suggests establishing a data-based sunset for the bottle deposit program, and leaves it up to the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to track and declare when the sunset has been reached.
The draft report calls for a reestablishment of the Clean Environment Fund, managed by DEP and used to fund the commission formed in the proposed legislation. The commission would research and recommend enhancements to the state's solid waste and recycling plan.
"It is the opinion of the members of the subcommittee that the bill outlined in this report would not only increase recycling rates and decrease litter, but it would also provide a framework for a more comprehensive solid waste and recycling program in the Commonwealth," the outline said.