Parade of the Usual Suspects

On Wednesday morning the House Natural Resources, Fish and Wildlife Committee held a session of Hearing Kabuki, a popular style of performative lawmaking. For the better part of three hours the panel heard from a parade of witnesses, all but one testifying exactly how you’d expect: from a position of naked self-interest. The only exception was Alyssa Hill, an eighth grader from Williston.

She was also the only witness with no financial or professional stake in the issue at hand. Or, to put it another way, the only “real person.” This hearing, as is the case almost every time, was dominated by special interests and paid lobbyists. The usual suspects.

The subject of the hearing was H.175, which would expand Vermont’s beverage container deposit system, a.k.a. the Bottle Bill. The deposit would be raised from five cents per container to 10, and it would apply to a much wider range of drinks: Water, wine, carbonated, uncarbonated. MIlk, dairy and non-dairy alternatives would be exempt. The bill would also increase the “handling fee,” paid to retailers and redemption centers, from four cents per container to five.

This idea has come up before, and it’s been somewhat divisive among lawmakers who prioritize environmental issues. Some want the bill extended to cover beverages that have gained popularity since the original bill took effect in 1973, such as water, iced tea, sports drinks and energy drinks. Others have argued the Bottle Bill is outdated in this era of single-stream recycling.

That argument seems a bit less compelling of late, as the markets for many recycled materials have plummeted. Somehow, that fact never came up in the hearing. There was barely a mention of roadside litter, which was the impetus for the original Bottle Bill.

So, what did come up?

Dwayne Symonds, an engineer with VTrans, spoke of a UVM research project seeking ways to use more crushed glass in road construction. This, I suppose, was meant to address the market-saturation issue by providing a glimmer of hope that recycled glass could become a viable commodity once again.

Then came Hill, who spoke of climate change and toxins generated in plastics production. She was complimented by lawmakers in an only slightly condescending manner, and sent on her way so the moneyed interests could have their turns at bat.

The third witness was an industry guy who actually supports H.175. Mike Noel represented TOMRA, which he described as a “global recycling innovation company.” It sells technology and systems that handle used containers, so it would stand to profit from an expanded bottle bill.

Noel was followed by an array of lobbyists and business interests, all of whom provided dark warnings of looming catastrophe should H.175 become law.

Rep. Michael Marcotte, chair of the House Commerce Committee and owner of a convenience store and redemption center, said his store and many others would be overwhelmed by the quantity and variety of containers that would be redeemable under H.175. Then he sung a popular tune, citing potential damage to retailers on the New Hampshire border if the deposit was raised to a dime.

But there was one part of the bill he actually likes: The increase in the handling fee. Which would go into his own pocket, of course.

Jen Holliday testified on behalf of the Chittenden Solid Waste District, which has invested heavily in single-sort technology. She asserted that H.175 would divert a small fraction of total waste, and that a broader approach must be taken. She didn’t mention collapsing prices for recycled materials, and no one thought to ask her.

Next, Bree Dietly on behalf of the Beverage Association of Vermont, a trade group of beverage producers. And testified, wouldn’t you know it, that an expanded bottle bill would be a terrible thing. Dietly called for a comprehensive look at the entire waterfront of recycling-related issues, or even a multi-state approach. Which might possibly happen before the Earth becomes a cold lifeless husk.

Then came Claire Buckley for the Vermont Wholesale Beverage Association. She claimed that H.175 would have “a negligible environmental impact.” She suggested a “private stewardship program” in the production and recycling sphere, which would presumably be voluntary and even more negligible in impact.

Next: Al McPherson of the Baker Distributing Corporation. He spun a tale of a Phish concert in Maine that resulted — so he claimed — in massive importations of out-of-state containers which were returned for deposit, overwhelming the system. The same moral hazard, he implied, would come to Vermont should H.175 become law.

Finally we had Bob Montgomery of Hill Farmstead Brewery and a board member of the Vermont Brewers Association. He warned of what H.175 would mean for small producers like his employer. (The bill’s lead sponsor, Rep. Jim McCullough, told Montgomery, “I love your products. Not so much your politics.”)

The committee had an hour of discussion after lunch. Several lawmakers expressed consternation at the widely differing testimony, and wondered how they could arrive at the truth. Which, in my cynical view, was the intention of most witnesses. Cloud the issue. Paralyze lawmakers with contradictory testimony. That will feed into their natural aversion to plowing new ground.

McCullough tried to defend his bill. “Everybody who presented to us who has supported expansion of the Bottle Bill has never had anything particularly to gain financially,” he said. “Everybody else has testified based on their financial interests.” He noted that the committee’s charge is to protect Vermont’s environment, and H.175 is a step in that direction.

Several members took positions on the bill, but others did not. There was no clear consensus. The three Republicans were all opposed, as was independent Rep. Paul Lefebvre and Springfield Democrat Kristi Morris, who cited border-town concerns.

Of the other six Democrats, only McCullough and Kari Dolan openly endorsed the bill. Committee chair Amy Sheldon and Reps. Seth Bongartz, Nelson Brownell and Larry Satcowitz did not express a clear position. If the bill is to pass through the committee, all six would have to vote “Yes.” And most committee chairs really don’t like split votes; they much prefer a broad consensus. It doesn’t look promising for H.175. That should satisfy most of today’s witnesses, aside from the young idealist.

Note: Many of the witnesses provided written testimony, available here.

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