The ballot initiative process generally doesn’t lend itself to good government, but it can be an effective strategy for forcing the enactment of good government. The effort to put an initiative expanding the state’s outdated bottle law on the November 2014 ballot will succeed if it persuades lawmakers to finally do the right thing in the interim.
A coalition of groups, among them MASSPIRG, the Sierra Club and the Environmental League of Massachusetts, has collected more than 130,000 signatures for a petition to expand the bottle law. The bill would require deposits and refunds on water and juice drinks, as well as most nonalcoholic, noncarbonated drinks. These drinks have absorbed a substantial part of the beverage market in recent years, and because they are not covered by the bottle law their containers are not productively recycled and often end up as roadside and waterway litter.
That the bottle law has not been updated in 30 years is shameful in a state that likes to consider itself environmentally conscious. It is difficult to find lawmakers, including members of the Berkshire delegation, who are not in favor of an expansion along the lines advocated by the referendum coalition, but legislation expanding the law routinely dies in committee. The Massachusetts Food Association, beverage companies and chain supermarkets oppose the expansion for no real reason beyond not wanting to be bothered by it, but these groups have a lot of money and a lot of influence on Beacon Hill leadership, which for years has blocked common sense efforts to add these newly popularly drinks to the law. Polls have consistently shown strong voter support for this expansion.
House and Senate leaders bristle at attempts by citizen petitioners to do what the leaders believe is their job, but they triggered this ballot initiative effort through years of inaction. They can head if off by passing the bottle law expansion in the months ahead. "Maybe this overwhelming signature drive will finally get the message to them to pass this bill," said MASSPIRG Executive Director Janet Domenitz to The Eagle. If they don’t get the message, legislators may get left behind.