IN A HIGH-HANDED MOVE more befitting his surname than his office, Gov. Edward J. King recently vetoed the state bottle bill. The veto shocked many political observers: the bill boasted tremendous support and King's popularity has been waning for months. Nevertheless, the veto was predictable: Two years ago he vetoed a similar bill. King's followers mistakenly believe the bottle bill is little more than an expensive way to give kids with red wagons a chance to earn pocket money. In reality, the bill would cut litter, save energy, and create jobs--all at little cost to the public.
In his veto message, King argued that approval of the bill-which requires five-or ten-cent deposits on all beer and soft drink containers--would cost Massachusetts some $100 million. That estimate comes from a study by Martin Feldstein. Harvard's conservative professor of Economics, and his wife, Kathleen. But pundits take Feldstein's bottom-line figure with a liberal dose on salt, especially since Feldstein's predilection for laissez-faire policy is well known. Moreover, an alternative study by MIT economist Franco Modigliani concluded that the costs would be minimal.
The best evidence against King's and Feldstein's verdict, however, comes from other states' experience. The six states which have adopted similar legislation have done so at little cost. Even in Vermont the costs have been negligible, despite prophecies of doom made by bottlers in their massive lobbying effort against the legislation. But King accepted the $100 million figure and repeatedly said it would cost a family of four $80 per year, prohibitively expensive for working families.
By portraying himself as a defender of the poor against rich conservationists and litter-loathing suburbanites, King hoped to garner the support he desperately needs. The problem is, as all polls indicate, that the poor as well as the rich support the bill by an overwhelming margin. King's challengers realize this: both Lt. Gov. Thomas P. O'Neill III and former governor Michael S. Dukakis favor the legislation.
The governor's final argument against the bill--that forcing citizens to lug bottles back to the store discriminates against the infirm--is little more than an afterthought, a rationalization of a foregone decision. Anyone who can carry full bottles home from the store can bring back empties.
By approving the bottle bill. King could have helped all of Massachusetts. As any visitor to Harvard Square will tell you, bottles and cans greatly contribute to urban litter. And in rural areas, too, unwelcome bottles put a blight on nature and upset ecology. The bill would not only prevent many a hitherto callous bottle-tosser from strewing the streets with refuse, it would also give passersby an incentive to pick up the discarded containers. And, as the economists would say, the resulting cleanliness represents an externality--a cost or benefit to society not reflected in the market price. By charging a nickel or dime deposit on bottles and cans, the state would slash pollution. And judging from the experiences of those states which already have bottle laws, Massachusetts could expect reduced energy costs and increased employment.
KING COULD ALSO have bolstered his own foundering political status. Sensing the country's conservative mood, he called the bill an intrusion of big government and vetoed it. But 70 per cent of the voters support the bill, and King can ill afford to lose votes. Currently his popularity runs about 10 per cent: it can only slip further because of the veto. He is likely to lose even more credibility if the legislature overrides his veto-- as the House already has and as the Senate may well do today.
With one more vote in the Senate, the bottle bill can triumph: even if it fails, legislators can propose it again in 1983, when Massachusetts will probably have a new governor. King, however, may not get a second chance. His veto, a desperate scramble for votes, backfired. He probably made enemies of his own children--if he has any-and all those whose red wagons lie rusting. And he committed what may prove his biggest--and last--political blunder.
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