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March 6, 2007

State lawmakers anticipate tough bottle-bill fight
By Greg Bruno

Albany — "Day One" has come and gone, but for state environmentalists, the "everything changes" era in Albany remains in limbo.

As lawmakers consider a $1.1 billion spending plan for the state Department of Environmental Conservation, fissures are emerging in Gov. Eliot Spitzer's proposal.

The most visible divide is over a planned $25 million boost in the environmental protection fund — money that would come from an expansion in the state's bottle-deposit law. As debate on the budget opened yesterday, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle anticipated a tough bottle-bill fight.

"The reality is the industry is going to have to eat the price," said Sen. William Stachowski, D-Buffalo, during a hearing of the legislature's fiscal committee. "This is going to hurt consumers."

Assemblywoman Aileen Gunther, D-Forestburgh, called it troubling that the governor has pinned vital environmental funding to a bill that might not pass.

"Perhaps he has assurances," she said.

He'd better, for the DEC's sake. When Sen. Carl Marcellino, R-Syosset, asked agency officials yesterday what they would do if the bill fails, the response was a collective shrug.

"I'd rather punt, if you don't mind," state parks Commissioner Carol Ash replied. "I don't know what we'll do if we don't have the bottle bill."

Dubbed the bigger, better bottle bill by advocacy groups, the legislation would expand the types of containers that carry nickel deposits to include juices, water and other beverages. Currently, the law applies only to beer and soda.

The measure proposed by Spitzer would also bump up the handling fee that bottling companies pay to grocery stores, to 3.5 cents per bottle from 2 cents, and give the state — not bottlers — unclaimed nickels.

If the expanded bottle bill is adopted, it would add $25 million in revenue to the Environmental Protection Fund this year, with additional annual revenue topping $100 million. The infusion of cash would fund new open space programs in the Hudson Valley and beyond, increase farm protection efforts, and implement the Hudson River Estuary Management Plan, among other initiatives.

Supporters say the expanded bottle bill is an easy way to reduce garbage and increasing recycling while generating much-needed state revenue. Environmental groups see this as their best chance to expand the bottle bill since its passage in 1982.

But opponents, including grocery and drug stores, breweries and beverage wholesalers, are lining up to kill the plan. They call the measure a tax and argue that smaller retailers don't have the space or resources to become de facto redemption centers.

"New York State's efforts should be focused on convenient, cost-effective, comprehensive recycling that addresses the full gamut of recyclables, not just beverage containers," James Rogers, president of the Food Industry Alliance of New York, said in a prepared statement.

Not all aspects of the governor's environmental budget are contentious. The addition of 109 new scientists and enforcement officers to the DEC will go a long way in restoring historic staffing levels, lawmakers and advocates agree.

But it might be the bottle bill that defines whether Spitzer keeps his promise that everything environmental changes in 2007.


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