Last night in Baltimore proponents of the so-called "bottle bill" and industry represenatives who have long opposed it met together as a special board created by the General Assembly to work out a long-sought compromise.
It was just the kind of forum where most legislators would like to keep an issue that was one of the most bitterly fought of last year's session. But without ever attempting to work on a bill, the Refuse and Material and Litter Control Advisory Board decided not to consider the matter any further.
So today, the coalition of citizen's groups in the state that manages the mandatory deposit campaign held a press conference in the State House to announce that the bottle bill -- in all its controversy -- would be back this year.
"Oh goodness, here we go," muttered Del. Gerard Devlin (D-Prince George's) when he heard the news. "Now we're going to have all that lobbying again."
Last year, in fact, the bottle bill -- which would require consumers to pay a five-cent charge on bottles and cans that would be refunded when the containers were returned to a dealer or recycling center -- was probably the most bitterly fought lobbying battle of the session.
On one side were dozens of citzens and environmental groups that argued that the legislation, which has so far been enacted in six states, could reduce beverage container litter by 85 to 95 percent, reduce the need for landfills, and save energy by recycling old bottles.
Opposing them was a powerful coalition of special interests groups, ranging from the state AFL-CIO to Bethlehem Steel, soft-drink bottlers, retailers and the Glass Packaging institute, that contended the measure would cost tho industries millions of dollars and would result in worker layoffs.
The campaigns conducted by these groups became so emotional that the House Environmental Matters Committee, which first considered the issue, remained polarized long afterthe bill was defeated on the House floor, with opposing factions accusing each other of treachery -- and in some cases seeking revenge -- until the final days of the session.
Eventually, the legislature enacted a proposal endorsed by industry groups to create the special board, composed of represenatives of all sides, to study the issue. And the hope of many legislative leaders was that this board, like so many others created each year in Annapolis, would become a buffer, if not an arbitrator, of a volatile issue, giving the assembly an excuse not to take it up for at least a year while tempers cool.
Unfortunately for those hoping for relief, however, the board decided not to cooperate. After being appointed by Gov. Harry Hughes, it met every two weeks beginning in September, but generally avoided the issue of beverage containers until last month, concentrating instead on noncontroversial refuse clean-up programs now conducted by the state.
"The members from the environmental groups felt it was a cop-out for them to be dealing with the issue here rather than in the legislature, and the industry people didn't want to work on it, for fear we would come up with something," said George Liebmann, a lawyer who worked with the board for the governor's office.
"Obviously," added Ajax Eastman, a leader of the Citizens Against Waste coalition who sat on the board, "the only reason for going to the meetings was that everybody was afraid the other people would pull a fast one if they didn't show up."
The dedicated antagnoists on the board, convinced that they could defeat each other in another legislative battle, refused last night even to take up a compromise draft bill. Even as the more neutral members of the board accused them of abdicating their responsibility to the legislature, they voted to tell the Assembly that they were too polarized as a group to take up the beverage container issue.
"I really think the legisalature should have known what would happen when they appointed this commission," said Ed Fielder, another prodeposit member. "They just wanted to get away from the issue. But now it's back in their court."