A bill to require 10-cent deposits on beer and soft drink containers passed its first crucial test in a Maryland House of Delegates committee today despite weeks of frenzied lobbying efforts by business and labor interests opposing it.
While savoring the upset 14-to-9 victory, Del. Gerald Winegrad, chief sponsor of the so-called "bottle bill," was already predicting: "The bill's in trouble the minute it hits the House floor. The fight will be vicious."
His chief opponent, Del. Daniel J. Minnick Jr. (D-Baltimore County) could not agree more. Hitching up his pants and looking his most pugnacious, Minnick announced, "I've seen 'em come out of committee unanimous and die on the House floor. We'll just have to work harder than we did in here."
The prospect was difficult to imagine on a bill that has generated more lobbying, more paranoia and more rumors of vote-trading, bills held hostage and chits called in for past favors than almost any other piece of legislation in this two-month-old General Assembly session.
The incredible abundance of the rumors, whether true, false or in-between, proved but one thing, according to House Speaker Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Baltimore): "It says that this is THE bill of the session covering environmentalists vs. industry."
Supporters of the "bottle bill" claim it would promote recycling, save energy and help clean up the environment. But the bill would cost various industries million of dollars in profits and, according to labor lobbyists, the loss of many jobs.
As the committee vote neared, the lobbying efforts intensified. So did the rumors.
There was the story, known only to a few and denied by its major subject, of a would-be trade between one of the bottle bills' eight sponsors and one of the bill's major foes, a delegate known for his skills in working the legislative angles.
As the story went, this sponsor would vote against the bottle bill in exchange for help on a prized piece of legislation in the other delegate's committee.
"That's fascinating," the sponsor said when told of the rumor. "I hadn't even heard of that one myself. Certainly I would not trade on issues of this kind . . . bills that are so serious," the delegate said.
And indeed, when the bottle bill vote came up today in the Environmental Matters Committee, this legislator was one of the 14 who voted for it.
Last week, friends of Del. Paula Hollinger (D-Baltimore County), considered to be a swing vote on the bottle bill, whispered and wondered about whether two of Hollinger's bills were being held hostage in a House committee, while opponents of the bottle bill worked to pursuade her to vote against it.
At least one legislator approached Hollinger and suggested that a "no" vote on the bottle bill might miraculously move Hollinger's bills out of the other committee, according to a reliable sources.
Hollinger, who would rather not discuss the subject, conceded that there had been "intimations" to that effect but said that she would not let them sway her decision on the bottle bill. In fact, when her name was called during the committee's voting session today, she sighed and voted "yes" on the bottle measure.
Throughout today bottle bill proponents were cornering the few fellow legislators identified as swing votes, trying to win their support. Del. Larry Young (D-Baltimore), an environmental consultant who has said he is torn between his conservation concerns and the opposition to the bill by many of his constituents, could hardly leave the House chamber today without being buttonholed by a bottle bill sponsor.
While sponsors of the bill worked themselves into a frenzy today on its behalf, opponents had all but given up.
"They're gonna beat us today. They've got the votes and I don't," said a disappointed Minnick several hours before the committee vote.
That didn't stop one of his fellow opponents, Del. Anthony DiPietro (D-Baltimore) from offering an amendment to the bill in committee that sponsors feared would kill the entire measure. DiPietro suggested that milk containers also require that 10-cent deposit. DiPietro then asked for a roll call vote on his amendment.
As the bills' sponsors looked uncomfortable, chairman Torrey Brown (D-Baltimore) called for the vote, and the measure lost, 14 to 8.
The "bottle bill" then passed out of committee by a 14-to-9 vote, and now will move to the full House of Delegates.
"The fight there," said sponsor Del. Joan Pitkin (D-Prince George's) "will be hell."