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April 2, 2008


Better bottle bill is good policy blocked by same old politics

By any reasonable measure, getting a bigger, better bottle bill acceptable to all through the state Legislature ought to be a no-brainer.

Especially this year, when sources of real funds ought to be embraced to prop up all those phantom revenues legislators are relying on to balance a state budget that, frankly, is long on dreaming, short on reality and already too expensive.

On its face, the advantages of extending the nickel deposits to noncarbonated beverages like juice, iced tea and water outweigh anybody's negatives by a great deal. Foremost is that it's great social legislation, keeping pace with the greening of America and our ever-growing environmental consciousness. The history of the first bottle bill shows it has greatly reduced both litter and the waste flow into landfills. There's no reason to doubt a bigger better will have the same effect.

On top of that, somewhere between $25 million and $200 million would materialize, depending on whose estimates you want to believe. Under the governor's expanded bottle bill proposal, which is part of his budget plan, all those revenues would be collected by the state.

The language in the original bottle bill was silent about who gets to keep those unredeemed nickels. Wholesalers, distributors and bottlers have done so and, as a consequence, they would naturally object to losing a revenue stream they've come to depend on for their bottom lines.

It's reasonable to offer them a cut of those nickel proceeds, just as it is appropriate to "pay" supermarkets and others to act as collection and recycling centers. Sure, the governor would love all the revenue for the state's general fund or the Environmental Protection Fund. But the reality of the market place and good old-fashioned compromise suggest a split could be agreed to.

So while the well-heeled opponents to a bigger, better, bottle bill are geared up once again to stop it cold, and the governor's office is in theory still pushing its version, compromise screams out to be done here.

Except the joker in the deck is Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno, who is opposed to the very idea of a bigger, better bill. It's mystifying and irritating, but he's being consistent at least. Way back when, he voted against the first bottle bill. Apparently, he thinks expanding the nickel deposit is an onerous imposition on business and "prohibitive to consumers." Of course, as Times Union reporter Irene Jay Liu pointed out Monday, Bruno's stance might have something to do with the $300,000 in campaign donations Republicans got from opponents to the expanded bottle deposits.

Regardless, the political reality is nothing will move without Joe agreeing to it. So for all the hot air we've been treated about reforming the process over the last year, this innocent piece of progressive legislation is being held hostage the good old-fashioned Albany way.

And speaking of that way, look at current budget negotiations. They are as opaque as ever, going on behind closed doors, with a budget crafted once more by that familiar trio of suits. Different governor, same suit. Gosh, wouldn't it be nice if the public had a seat at that table?

No one I've spoken to in the environmental community has an iota of hope that the bigger, better bottle bill will survive budget negotiations. It's doomed.

Republican Sen. Carl Marcellino has said he favors getting a bigger, better bill passed as a stand-alone, after the budget passes. At this point, he has the attention of all those who care about this issue. Quietly, the armies on either side are preparing to change tactics with that in mind.

Although for the record, David Paterson's environmental adviser Judith Enck insists the administration is still fully supporting the bill tied to the budget, and opponents are stating forget it for any BBBB this year.

I remain the eternal optimist that something can get done anyway. After all, there are issues Bruno cares about more than whether a bottle of iced tea gets a nickel deposit, such as maybe retaining control of the Senate.

Senator Marcellino's seat on Long Island has been marked by Democrats as vulnerable. Over the years, Marcellino has been a stalwart in pushing environmental legislation. This year more than ever, he needs a bright feather for his war bonnet when he goes out on the stump. Like getting credit for expanding this bill, for example.

As opposed to being targeted as a member of the Senate majority whose idea of thinking green is limited to milking lobbyists and business donors.

Fred LeBrun can be reached at 454-5453 or by e-mail at flebrun@timesunion.com.



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