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March 31, 2008


Nickels add up for bottle bill's foes

ALBANY -- For years, the "bigger, better bottle bill" has inspired passion among environmentalists and other advocates, and drawn big payouts from the beverage industry to lawmakers' campaign coffers. And this year is no different.

The bill, which has been included in the governor's and Assembly's budget proposals, would expand the nickel deposit to bottles for noncarbonated beverages such as iced tea, water and sports drinks. Currently, the deposit is required for beer, soda and other carbonated beverage bottles.

The bill also would require bottlers to return unclaimed deposits to the state's environmental fund -- an estimated $100 to $190 million per year -- to provide new funding for parks, recycling programs, waste clean-up and other programs.

Bottlers, who now pocket the unclaimed deposits, have been spending hundreds of thousands dollars to keep it that way.

A 2004 study by New York Public Interest Group, which favors the bottle bill, found that opponents of it donated more than $1.2 million to state legislators, state parties, and statewide elected officials in 2002 and 2003. Supporters of the bill donated less than one percent of that.

From 2002-2004, opponents also spent over $2 million on lobbying state legislators. The top five industry opponents in lobbying expenditures were Anheuser-Busch Cos., Food Industry Alliance, Coca-Cola Co., Beer Wholesalers Association and the Bottlers Association, which represents soft drink bottlers.

In 2007, those five donated more than $350,000 to campaign coffers. Of that, around $300,000 went to Senate Republicans, who have consistently blocked passage of the expanded bottle bill since it was proposed in 2002.

But the bill has found supporters on both sides. Sen. Kenneth LaValle, R-Port Washington, co-sponsored bottle bill legislation with former Democratic Assemblyman Thomas DiNapoli for years, and supports its inclusion in this year's budget.

Senate Majority Leader Joseph L. Bruno, though, remains opposed to it.

"While we support efforts to promote recycling, expansion of the bottle bill would be prohibitive to consumers. In addition, it would increase costs for supermarket, convenience stores and bottle distributors, who would no longer be allowed to retain unclaimed deposits," said Bruno spokesman Scott Reif.

In May 2007, Bruno flew to New York City for a $5,000-per-head fundraiser hosted by bottle bill opponents, which raised funds for the Senate GOP campaign committee.

The fundraiser helped stopped progress of the bill in its tracks, according to advocates.

"When the bigger, better bottle bill was gaining momentum last May, the industry opponents' reaction was to throw a $5,000-a-head fundraiser for Sen. Bruno -- something that nonprofit community and environmental groups just can't do. Perhaps not surprisingly, its momentum immediately ground to a halt," said NYPIRG Legislative Operations and Research Coordinator Bill Mahoney.

Environmentalists say that going up against well-funded opposition isn't anything new for them.

"I can't think of many fights where we weren't up against hundreds of thousands of dollars in special interest money," said Rob Moore, executive director of Environmental Advocates of New York. "So from that perspective, we're very cost efficient. And might I add, our fees are tax-deductible."

Irene Jay Liu can be reached at 454-5081 or by e-mail at iliu@timesunion.com.

Pouring it on

Opponents of a new bottle deposit bill donated big bucks to politicians in 2007, particularly Senate Republicans.

Donations by party:

Senate Republicans $302,100

Assembly Republicans $31,450

Assembly Democrats $17,875

Senate Democrats $12,850 Top five opponents* 2007 campaign donations: Coca-Cola Co. $126,600

NYS Beer Wholesalers $111,750

NYS Bottlers Association $50,000

Food Industry Alliance $48,000

NYS Association of Convenience Stores $16,675

Anheuser-Busch Cos. $16,475

* Opponents who spent the most on lobbying in 2002-2004, according to a 2004 NYPIRG study.

Source: State campaign finance data, NYPIRG


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