The bottle bill blues

A mix of divisiveness and stubborness once again kills an expanded bottle bill

The state already has on its books a recycling law that assesses a 5-cent deposit on beer and carbonated beverage containers. Supporters have been trying for 14 years to extend the law to the containers of noncarbonated beverages, such as water and sports drinks. The supporters say they have the backing of a majority in both the House and Senate, but they can’t get their bill to the floor for a vote.

House Speaker Robert DeLeo has blocked them in the House. In an interview with WBZ Radio on Tuesday, DeLeo said he opposes an expansion of the bottle deposit law because he views the deposit as a tax. “To put a 25- or 30-cent tax or fee, whatever you want to call it, on the purchase of a six-pack of beverages, this was not the right time to do it,” he told WBZ’s Joe Mathieu.

DeLeo said he asked Rep. John Keenan, the House chairman of the Legislature’s Telecommunications, Utilities, and Energy Committee, if his stance on the expansion of the bottle deposit law was off base, and says Keenan told him it wasn’t. “He was stronger than I was in terms of his opposition to the legislation,” DeLeo said. Keenan’s committee voted 10-7 last Thursday to send the bill to a study, effectively killing it.

To those who chide him for not letting the bottle deposit bill come up for a vote on the House floor, DeLeo pointed out that the measure came up for a vote on the Senate floor in May and was sent for further study. He seemed to imply that bottle bill backers had their chance and blew it. What really happened is a bit more complex.

On May 23, Sen. Robert Hedlund proposed the expansion of the bottle deposit law as an amendment to the Senate budget.  Hedlund, a Republican, says he is appalled by all the litter he sees as he travels the state and thinks an expanded bottle deposit law would help address the problem. He also says it’s lunacy that the state imposes a deposit on some containers but not on others, even when they are made by the same manufacturer.

After filing the amendment, Hedlund says he was told that if he sought a voice vote on the measure it would pass. But Hedlund insisted on a roll call. “I want one vote on this before I leave the Legislature,” he said. “Why are we so afraid to vote on things around here?”

Sources say some members of the Senate were reluctant to take a roll call vote on the controversial measure, particularly because the House was unlikely to go along. Other members didn’t want to approve an expansion of the bottle deposit law through a budget amendment. Hedlund calls the concerns “inside baseball BS.”

However you describe the concerns, Sen. Marc Pacheco of Taunton, a cosponsor of the bottle bill, felt they were real. He feared Hedlund’s amendment would be defeated by one or two votes, putting the Senate on record as against an expanded bottle bill even though Pacheco believes there is majority support for the measure if it were taken up on its own. To avoid a defeat of Hedlund’s bill, Pacheco says he offered an amendment that would send Hedlund’s proposal for further study.

Pacheco’s amendment was adopted on a 22-15 vote, effectively killing Hedlund’s proposal. Several senators who have been identified as bottle bill supporters by the Massachusetts Public Interest Research Group voted with Pacheco, including Sens. Katherine M. Clark, Sal DiDomenico, Thomas Kennedy, Anthony Petruccelli, Stanley Rosenberg, Karen Spilka, James Timilty, and James Welch.

Meet the Author

Bruce Mohl

Editor, CommonWealth

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

Meet the Author
As for DeLeo’s claim that a bottle deposit is a tax, Hedlund says it’s simply not true because you get your deposit back if you return the container. “When I pay my sales tax, I don’t get it back,” he said.

Janet Domenitz, executive director of MassPIRG, said DeLeo knows full well the difference between a tax and a deposit. But she said he can call it whatever he wants as long as he lets the bottle bill come up for a vote. “You can call it a tax,” she said. “You can call it a pink elephant if you want. Just let it come to a vote.”