In what has become a nearly annual statehouse ritual, a Senate committee responded yesterday to the pleas of industry groups by killing a bill to require deposits on beverage containers.
The 8-to-6 vote in the Senate Agriculture Committee came after scores of bottle makers, beer wholesalers and food dealers flocked to a morning hearing to denounce the so-called "bottle" bill as an intolerable economic burden that would drive up consumer prices. The legislation, which was pushed by a coalition of farmers and environmentalists, would have required a 10-cent deposit on the sale of all beer and soft-drink containers.
The industry presentation, planned by influential statehouse lobbyist Bill Thomas, featured a six-minute industry-produced movie showing how bottle legislation in Michigan had swamped grocery clerks with mountains of returnable deposits. The industry also brought forth witnesses such as Beatrice McClain, the owner of a small "Mom and Pop" grocery store in Loudoun County, who said handling returnable bottles would be "a real mess. I might even have to go out of business, who knows?"
Pro-business senators were visibly impressed. "What we have here is a matter of freedom of choice," said Frank W. Nolen (D-Augusta), asserting that the bill would deprive consumers of their choice between returnable bottles and throwaways. "It involves the free enterprise system."
For their part, consumer groups and farmers presented a bag full of discarded Pepsi-Cola and beer bottles to dramatize their point that an avalanche of roadside litter was costing the state $25 million a year to clean up. As soon as the vote was over, their leaders assailed the committee for knuckling under to industry pressure.
"This shows how the special interests have too much influence," said Democratic Sen. Madison Marye, a Montgomery County farmer who was the bill's chief sponsor. "But I don't think the people are going to let this issue die. This isn't a liberal bill, it's not a hare-brained bill. It's a conservative bill -- it conserves energy and saves tax money."
For all its intensity, the rhetoric on both sides was standard fare in Richmond, as it has become in dozens of states around the country where environmentalists have pushed bottle bills. In nearly every Virginia legislative session for the past decade, proponents have sponsored bottle bills, only to watch them fall victim to the same industry coalition quarterbacked by Thomas. He is an Alexandria lawyer and former Democratic Party chairman who regularly lobbies here for the Virginia Beer Wholesalers Association, among others.
A smiling Thomas, who said he "hid in the background" during the hearing, said afterward very little was required to knock off the bill this time. He said he did not even talk to committee members, letting the beer wholesalers and other industry groups such as the Virginia Food Dealers Association organize letter-writing campaigns to legislators by their members.
"We had a few strategy sessions," he said. "But the committee has pretty much heard the same things every year so its hard to say anything new. My theory of lobbying is you win the battles before the legislature even starts, anyway."
Environmentalists, led by a group called Virginians for Returnables, had hoped to score points this time by focusing attention on what they described as the inadequacies of the state Division of Litter Control, an obscure $1.3 million state agency that was created six years ago to promote "litter awareness" among the state's citizens.
Conceived by industry as an alternative to bottle bills, the Litter Control Division disburses funds to local governments for "clean-up" campaigns by volunteer groups such as the Boy Scouts. It also has devised a school curriculum, called "Operation Waste Watch," complete with film strips, cassettes and brochures, designed to heighten awareness of the litter problem.
The bill's proponents yesterday ridiculed the division as a hopelessly ineffective response to the state's litter problem. "It's a terrible program," Marye said.
Opponents argued that at least the division's programs were directed at all categories of litter, not just bottles. "I know the concerns of farmers," Nolan said. "I've picked up everything including dirty baby panties and I haven't heard anybody propose deposits on those things."