My analysis of 2014 Massachusetts ballot questions

By | September 18, 2014

Here’s my take on the state-wide ballot questions that will be on the ballot in Massachusetts on November 4, 2014. I’d be interested to hear your thoughts in the comments.

UPDATE: I originally recommended a vote against  Question 2, but I’ve changed my mind. See below for the details.

Question 1: Eliminating Gas Tax Indexing

The Legislature sensibly linked the gas tax to the consumer price index, so that as the cost of maintaining our roads and bridges goes up, the Commonwealth will take in more revenue to support them.

Our roads and bridges are in disastrous condition due to years of failing to spend enough to maintain them. We should be supporting, not opposing, anything that makes it easier for the Commonwealth to spend what it needs to clear the backlog of required maintenance and perform necessary maintenance proactively in the future.

This question isn’t really about gas tax indexing, it’s really about anti-tax crazies who oppose all taxes of any sort. The last sentence in the “in favor” section in the voter’s guide, “The state has a spending problem, not a revenue problem,” makes this clear.

Vote NO on Question 1.

Question 2: Expanding the Beverage Container Deposit Law

I originally recommended a vote against question 2. I justified that position as follows:

Bottle deposits are outdated and obsolete. Single-stream recycling is the future. Rather than propping up the bottle-deposit business, the Legislature would be better off introducing recycling incentives that encourage single-stream recycling, such as requiring residents to pay for excess trash but not for excess recycling. Incentives such as these have been used successfully in many communities.

I suspect that nowadays most bottle-deposit bottles that get recycled are fished out of people’s recycling bins by the people you see walking the streets every trash day with grocery carts. Adding more kinds of bottles to the deposit list therefore won’t increase recycling, it’ll just cost people money.

I am now convinced that the suspicion I asserted in the second paragraph above is simply wrong. As for the first paragraph above, I still think there are other things we should be doing to encourage and increase recycling. However, I am now convinced that the bottle bill works so darn well at increasing recycling rates for beverage bottles, that we should indeed use expanded bottle deposits as a primary strategy for increasing recycling, in addition to other strategies such as the ones I mentioned.

When I was first researching my position on this question, I saw a claim repeated over and over, that 80% of deposit bottles are currently recycled in Massachusetts compared to only 23% of non-deposit bottles. Those numbers just seemed too outrageous to trust without proof, and I couldn’t find any proof. But thanks to my friend Phil Sego, a proponent of Question 2 who is involved with the Sierra Club and Knows What The Heck He Is Talking About, I am now convinced that those numbers are real. And I just can’t ignore the fact that expanding the bottle bill would more than triple the recycling rate for beverage containers covered by the expanded bill. That’s a huge amount of recycling that isn’t happening now. Therefore, my new recommendation is…

Vote YES on Question 2.

Question 3: Expanding Prohibitions on Gaming

Casinos are evil. They destroy communities and people and attract crime (organized and otherwise) like moths to a flame. I don’t think the Legislature should have passed the Expanded Gaming Law in the first place, and I would be happy to see it repealed by referendum.

Vote YES on Question 3.

Question 4: Earned Sick Time for Employees

Treat people like human beings. ’nuff said.

Vote YES on Question 4.


Print Friendly, PDF & Email

7 thoughts on “My analysis of 2014 Massachusetts ballot questions

  1. jik Post author

    More comments from a friend on Facebook, with my responses intermingled:

    With regard to bottles, I have several follow-up questions.

    First, in areas where single-stream recycling has taken hold, what is the rate at which bottles fail to get recycled? (That is, either become litter or landfill.) I would imagine that conscientious people recycle in their homes, but it’s harder away from home, especially when you’re walking around outdoors, and many people aren’t conscientious.

    The third-party argument in favor of the expanded bottle bill includes the following text: “The Bottle Bill works: 80% of beer and soda containers get recycled. Only 23% of non-deposit containers do. So every year a billion bottles get tossed away, often on playgrounds, roads and beaches. Communities have to pay to clean them up.”

    The source for these statistics is not identified, and the person offering them is not a disinterested party, so I distrust them on principle. A quick Google search finds the 80%/23% statistic cited over and over by proponents of the bill, but fails to identify a source. Furthermore, if the statistic is several years old, as I suspect it is, then it’s almost certainly inaccurate, since both curbside and public-space recycling facilities have increased dramatically in the past several years. I would rather see efforts put into increasing such facilities even more than into increasing bottle-bill bureaucracy. Finally, I found one page asserting a 23% recycling rate for disposable water bottles nationwide which makes me suspect that the proponents who started circulating these statistics took the Massachusetts statistic for recycled deposit bottles, glommed it together with the completely apples-to-oranges statistic for nationwide recycled water bottles, and started circulating that as if it were good science. Ugh. In short, I don’t think the answer to your question exists in any form that is actually useful for drawing conclusions.

    As for how conscientious people are, as I noted above, the right answer to that is to put more recycling receptacles in more public spaces, not to increase the scope of the bottle bill. Frankly, I hardly think anybody who can’t be bothered to stick an empty water bottle back into their backpack to bring home and throw in their recycling bin is going to change their behavior because the bottle cost an additional five cents.

    Second, to what extent do bottles (dirty bottles) adversely affect single stream recycling? I’ve read that most paper recyclers won’t accept paper from single stream sources because of food contamination. (Cans may actually be the bigger issue, but …)

    Then fix the curbside recycling programs to make them more effective.

    I would want to know this data before voting against the bottle bill. (Of course, I live in Maryland where we don’t charge deposits on bottles, but have made remarkable strides by taxing plastic grocery bags.)

    1. Beth Kevles

      Ok. So you’re saying that *they* have made up the statistics. But that doesn’t mean your own guess is any better. It just means more research is needed. And I suspect that the recycling statistics will vary based on SES of the neighborhood. In wealthier neighborhoods, people have more time and energy to recycle. In poorer neighborhoods, where people may have less time and energy, the gap is likely filled by those who need those nickle deposits. This is a guess, of course.

      As for improving the quality of single stream recycling … that’s actually a very difficult problem. The root cause is that people don’t clean their bottles and cans properly before throwing them in the bin. The reasons vary. I’m actually in favor of having people continue to separate their recyclables, based on the reading that I’ve done. Yes, fewer items get recycled that way, but more of what *is* recycled is usable.

      Interesting discussion, in any event. I wonder what the real numbers are? Maybe your local waste management people have some? It would be great to have reliable data to base this converation on.

      1. jik Post author

        Beth wrote…

        But that doesn’t mean your own guess is any better. It just means more research is needed.

        Right, but I’m not the one trying to change the law and put an additional burden on people.

        It’s incumbent on the people trying to do that to make their case, including producing trustworthy, verifiable statistics to support it.

  2. jik Post author

    A friend writes on Facebook…

    I disagree on the deposit bill — not particularly vehemently. Raising prices might make people think a bit more about buying these drinks, and they do provide a source of income for some people on the margins.

    I have several problems with this justification for supporting the bottle bill. Let’s take them one by one…

    …might make people think a bit more about buying these drinks…

    The implication is that people should be discouraged from buying these drinks, presumably because they are unhealthy. The first problem with this argument is that many drinks covered by the bill are not unhealthy. There’s no justification for discouraging people from buying gallons of orange juice or bottles of unsweetened ice tea.

    The second problem is that even taxing the beverages that are unhealthy, to discourage people from drinking them, far oversteps the boundaries of reasonable government.

    …they do provide a source of income for some people on the margins…

    Providing income for people on the margins by making them wander the streets digging bottles out of recycling bins is awful social policy. The number of people helped in this way is puny compared to the money spent. There are better ways to help more people for less money.

  3. Ezra

    Regarding #1: At least in MA – when you are on a toll road – your tolls pay for the road. NJ is not like this and I would favor linking the CPI to the gas tax.

    The one drawback with the gas tax funding the roads is that not all cars are created equal. Hybrids will use less gas, etc. People have proposed usage taxes – but then tourists/commuters from out of state do not pay for the roads. So – then people suggest more tolls at the borders.. but again, commuters from out of state will suffer and might choose not to work in MA – decreasing revenues…

    Not an easy problem to solve….

    1. jik Post author

      None of these issues you outline have anything to do with what the amount of the gas tax should be, but rather have to do with the structure of how we fund our roads and bridges. That structure may be flawed, but it’s what we have, and changing it would be extremely complicated and is well beyond the scope of this ballot question. Whether or not we should do that, in the meantime we need to raise enough money to deal with the maintenance backlog and then maintain properly moving forward, and linking the gas tax to the CPI needs to be a part of that.

      1. Ezra

        Oh – I agree.. I like the CPI method – or some formula based on it…. It at least a step in the right direction. Expecting the federal government to come through is foolish in this day and age…


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *