The official at the Alcoholic Beverage Control Department was exasperated. "We've been kicked around in this matter from the beginning," he said. "We've been the fall guy."
What was bothering the official, who did not want to be identified (perhaps to avoid a kick from his superiors in the Office of Public Safety, which oversees the ABC), was that the department, moe particularly the three-member commission that makes policy, was being accused of bottling up efforts to require deposits on beer bottles.
Advocates of a deposit system say it would have a big impact on cleaning up roadside litter.
In the past, the ABC has adopted a position of "complete neutrality" on the issue, especially after Loudoun County Circuit Court Judge Carleton Penn, in 1976, granted an injunction against a Loudoun ordinance that required deposits in soda and beer containers. Penn said the ordinance poached on ABC authority that is spelled out in the Virginia code.
ABC officials, after much agonizing, are now leaning toward support of legislation that would change the section of the code cited by Penn, and would permit localities like Loudoun to put deposits on beer containers. Loudoun and Fairfax counties have passed and are enforcing ordinances controlling soda containers, but deposit advocates say that beer containers account for almost three times as much roadside litter.
"This is a real breakthrough," said Sen. Charles L. Waddell (D-Loudoun), one of the leaders of the drive to put deposits on beer containers.
ABC officials contend they have never been opposed to local-option control. They said that after Penn made his decision they had no choice but to cite it when they received inquiries from jurisdictions considering container legislation. Furthermore, they said, they didn't want to come down on one side or the other while the Loudoun case was still awaiting full trial.
But Waddell and other supporters of beer-container deposits have been putting pressure on the ABC to take a stand - and so the commission is sending a group of alternative policies to Secretary of Public Safety Selwayn H. Smith. One ABC official said the commission will endorse the alternative calling for legislation that would give localities the right to require deposits on beer containers.
The ABC's shift, significant as it might be, does not guarantee that the deposit drive will achieve its goals, which range from giving localities the power to conrol beer containers to a state law requiring deposits on both soft drink and beer containers.
Smith has said in the past that he did not favor a local option on beer containers. Furthermore, industry lobbyists are likely to mount a counter driver, as they have in the past, during the current session.
William G. Thomas, lobbyist for the Virginia Beer Wholesalers Association, hints, however, that the industry may not go all-out.
"The legislators are getting a little tired of the same old dig and pony show . . . I don't plan any massive effort," he said. Nevertheless, Thomas said, "the industry would vigorously oppose any attempt to amend (the state law cited by Penn). The industry thinks the most unreasonable alternative would be having our containers subject to the whim of 135 localities."
The General Assembly is considering legislation that would impose uniform, statewide controls on both beer and soft drink containers, as has been done in Oregon and Vermont.
One bill, which is not expected to get very far, was offered by Sen. Joe A. Canada Jr. (D-Virginia Beach) and sent - some say capriciously - to the Rehabilitation and Social Services Committee, whose chairman, Sen. Lawrence D. Wilder (D-Richmond), is opposed to such legislation. The other, with prospects not quite so dim, was offered by Sen. Clive L. DuVal II (D-Fairfax) and sent to the committee on Agriculture, Conservation and Natural Resources whose chairman, Sen. Howard P. Anderson (D-Halifax), signed up as a co-sponsor.
"I think a deposit system is the only ultimate answer," Anderson said. "We've tried to educate people on this issue, but we haven't been successful . . . The secondary highway system is just a jungle of litter."
The officials over at the Virginia Litter Control Commission are not as cynical about the efficacy of education. They have a $1.2 million budget to spread the word to Virginia residents that "littering is unacceptable social behavior," in the words of Commissioner Robert W. Slocum.
Supporters of an education program point to the state of Washington as an example of an educational effort that made dramatic strides in cleaning up litter.
The claims of both sides will be recited at forthcoming hearings on bottle legislation in the General Assembly - the next performance of what lobbyist Thomas calls the dog and pony show.