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May 31, 2007

Times Herald-Record

New state bottle bill puts nickels on the table
By Ramsey Al-Rikabi

Warwick — In many ways, it's all about the nickels.

The fight over expanding the state's bottle law might come down to who gets the millions of dollars in unclaimed deposits.

The bill would extend the 5-cent deposit now on beer and soda bottles to water, fruit juices and sport drinks, popular non-carbonated drinks that made up only a fraction of the drink market when the initial bottle bill was passed 25 years ago.

As part of a last-minute push by Gov. Eliot Spitzer to boost what supporters call the Bigger, Better Bottle Bill, the state's agriculture chief stumped here yesterday in support of an expanded bottle deposit law.

Besides concerns from retailers that more returned bottles would mean lost storage space, added work and higher drink prices, the fight over the bill boils down to the unclaimed deposits that bottlers and large distributors now keep — estimated ranging from $75 million to $185 million.

Spitzer's version of the bill adds that pile of nickels to the state's $225 million Environmental Protection Fund.

Patrick Hooker, the recently appointed agricultural commissioner, stood in a cow stall at Sweetman's dairy farm here yesterday, surrounded by Holsteins, and talked about how important for farm and open-space preservation the expanded bill would be.

About the same time, Pete Grannis, his counterpart at the Department of Environmental Conservation, was scheduled to be on Long Island talking about how the bill would fund environmental initiatives. And on Tuesday, Carol Ash, commissioner of the state's Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, was across the Hudson River discussing how the bill would fund park upgrades.

Both supporters and opponents have been busy producing "Myths and Facts" sheets and disseminating wildly divergent estimates of the bill's costs and benefits. Lobbying and campaign contributions since 2003 for or against the bill are estimated to be $20 million.

Spitzer's office hopes to pass the bill before the end of the legislative session on June 21, though that is unlikely with bigger items on his agenda like campaign finance reform.

The state Senate has produced a bill nearly identical to the governor's, but without giving the millions of dollars in unclaimed deposits to the state.

The nickel issue, said Judith Enck, the deputy secretary for the environment, is open for negotiation.

"Everything is on the table."


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