Kentucky's bottle-bill debate began two years ago with a story line seemingly lifted out of a Frank Capra movie — a high school class project on cleaning up litter gets championed by one of the state's most powerful political figures, House Majority Leader Greg Stumbo. It developed into one of the most heated and heavily lobbied political battles involving plastics recycling in recent years. But the effort failed this spring, after a blizzard of television advertising from the American Plastics Council, the National Association for PET Container Resources and other opponents succeeded in branding deposits as a tax.
Both sides debate the impact of the money poured into the fight, but one thing is clear: Industry had a lot more to spend.
Plastics News examined the spending on both sides of the fight, and found that deposit opponents dramatically outspent environmentalists.
On the costly advertising campaign, the margin was conservatively 10-to-1.
The industry coalition did not disclose spending on the ads, but by several accounts spent much more than the $6,600 that environmentalists reported spending on their small campaign of newspaper and radio ads.
For example, Washington-based APC said it spent $20,000 for its share of the ads, and other groups like retailers and soft drink companies probably spent more, said Roger Bernstein, APC's vice president of state government affairs. Charlotte, N.C.-based NAPCOR said it spent less, but would not say how much.
Kentucky's grocers alone spent more than $20,000 for their share of the ads, said Patrick Hicks, president of the Kentucky Grocers Association and Kentucky Association of Convenience Stores, both in Frankfort, Ky.
One estimate of advertising spending prepared by Kentucky media consultants sympathetic to environmentalists estimated the industry spent $77,000 in the first 10 days of the campaign. The effort continued for several weeks.
Industry officials said they may have had more money, but they needed the ad campaign because the state's two big newspapers were running editorials against them. They said they needed to present factual information to legislators and the public, and once they did, the bill ran into problems.
"I don't know that cash made a difference," said Ray Gillespie, a soft drink industry lobbyist in Kentucky. "I'd like to think the decisions were made by legislators who saw the facts and made up their minds."
APC's Bernstein said the TV message helped: "The advertising, which defined the issue as one of onerous taxation and a program with a high cost, was effective in getting our message out at a time when the local media seemed to be only championing the proponents."
Industry argued that Kentucky shoppers would drive elsewhere to avoid the deposits because about 60 percent of the state lives on its border, said John Hinkle, president of the Kentucky Retail Federation. And studies in Massachusetts found it cost 3.25 cents to 6.8 cents per container to operate the collection system, but Kentucky collection centers would get only 2 cents, he said.
"Primarily, our message was to try to get our local members back home aware of it and call their legislators," Hinkle said. "That was effective. The [ads] probably helped give cover for the legislators who had a tough vote."
The industries' TV ad featured two women unloading groceries in a kitchen and talking about how the bottle bill amounts to a tax on beverage containers, and would hurt the elderly, in particular.
Deposit opponents said framing the issue as a tax worked, even if both sides sharply debated whether it's fair to call a bottle bill a tax.
"The tax campaign was less than responsible," said Tom Fitzgerald, executive director of the Kentucky Resources Council. "Not only was it misinformation about the bottle bill, it had the effect of poisoning the air regarding all the tax issues in the budget."
Environmentalists and supporters in the Legislature said deposits are not a tax because the nickel and dime deposits on containers are refundable. But others call it a tax because many of the deposits do not get claimed, and governments depend on those unclaimed deposits to fund programs — sometimes programs unrelated to solid waste.
"People say, `I think it's great if we clean up Kentucky,'|" Hicks said. "If you say, `It'll cost a nickel a container,' they say no."
Deposit opponents argue that bottle bills are relics of a time before most people had curbside recycling, and they complain that the programs raise costs for companies and consumers. Environmentalists, however, say bottle-bill states recycle two or three times more plastic than other states and are the only effective solution to falling plastic recycling rates.
The bill included an advanced disposal fee, which both sides agreed is a tax on containers.
On spending for more traditional lobbying, Kentucky campaign finance documents also show that industry had an advantage — albeit smaller.
The industry coalition spent $64,000 in January and $58,000 in February. The environmental groups, by contrast, spent $33,000 in January and $44,000 in February.
The coalition included APC, Coca-Cola Co. and a local bottler, local and national soft drink associations, brewers and liquor trade groups. Environmental lobbying figures include about $20,000 each month from farmers' organizations.
That is not all spending on the bottle bill, but rather what the groups spent on total lobbying. But the bottle bill was a significant part of what many worked on, and the comparison provides a useful measure of relative lobbying resources.
Grocers and convenience stores, in particular, were able to use their strength in grass-roots lobbying, Hicks said. Grocers handed out leaflets, and convenience stores were successful in getting consumers to sign petitions opposed to the bill, he said. They said they found widespread opposition — the petitioners collected 154,000 signatures.
In at least one incident, though, aggressive grocers' tactics seemed to have backfired.
State Rep. Fred Nesler told a legislative staffer that he was furious that a local grocer in Mayfield, in his rural district, was handing out leaflets to customers specifically blaming Nesler for hurting business if the container-deposit proposal passed. Nesler was getting phone calls every few minutes from people opposed to bill.
To show his anger, Nesler told Stumbo aide Barbara Rhoads that he would make the motion to move the bill out of committee on a crucial upcoming vote. The bill passed out of the Appropriations and Revenue Committee by a 15-14 vote in February.
Nesler did not return phone calls to Plastics News, but Rhoads said Nesler was "furious" and told her that "I don't want Ray Gillespie or John Hinkle to ever ask me for anything while I am on this committee."
Hicks said telling customers to call Nesler went beyond the bounds of fair play in Kentucky, and he called it an "unfortunate situation."
"We made every effort to get that stopped," said Hicks, who grew up in Mayfield. "[Nesler] knows that's not the way I play ball. ... When you do grass roots, you ask people to communicate with their elected officials. Sometimes they get kind of emotional, and you can't control them."
The environmentalists were not as organized, and even in the last days of the legislative fight did not have a phone tree to start to make calls, for example, said Dick Shore, a lobbyist for the Kentucky Conservation Committee, which gets funding from a local Sierra Club chapter and the League of Women Voters.
Some of the environmental groups also operated on a shoestring. The Kentucky Resources Council did not have money in January and February to pay the salary of its executive director, and the nearly $7,000 it listed in lobbying expenses is what it owes him when it brings in more money, the group said.
Perhaps the strongest card environmentalists had was Stumbo, the majority leader in the Kentucky House and sponsor of the bill, who pursued it very aggressively.
Kentucky's governor also endorsed the bill, in concept.
After the bill died on the House floor, Stumbo resurrected it as a constitutional amendment referendum and almost succeeded in getting it on the ballot.
"You have to recognize that Mr. Stumbo is possibly the most powerful person in the Legislature," said Hicks. The bottle bill, he said, was also "an organized effort to present Mr. Stumbo in a positive way and position him to run for higher office."
Rhoads, Stumbo's aide, said she thinks the industry's legislative push was more important than the advertising campaign in stopping the bill. But members of the industry coalition said Stumbo also engaged in a lot of old-fashioned political arm-twisting on legislators in the middle.
Denny Harris, immediate past president of the Solid Waste Coordinators of Kentucky, said the raw politics frustrated him.
He believes the industry coalition's money and lobbying campaign stopped legislation that would have helped the state.
For example, a survey from the solid waste coordinators found that 52 percent of the litter on highways and in rivers would be covered by the bottle bill, said Harris, who is solid waste coordinator for rural Logan County along the Tennessee border.
As another example, Harris said he and a work crew of jail inmates recently pulled five pickup-truck loads of garbage from a small lake in Logan County, and he estimated 70 percent of it was bottles and cans. A bottle bill would be the best way to reduce that, he said.
"When you are out there facing the problem every day, and [the bottle bill] gets voted down, it's discouraging," Harris said. "The 70 percent of Kentuckians who want the bottle bill don't have the money the bottle industry does."