Lawmakers uncork criticism of bottle bill changes, advance proposals anyway

Legislation to change the bottle bill is still alive this session. (Photo by Perry Beeman/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

Separate legislative bills that would change Iowa’s 42-year-old beverage container deposit law advanced Thursday after lawmakers said the fight is far from over. 

Senate File 565 would require an accounting of unredeemed container deposits. House Study Bill 252 would allow retailers to decline to take bottles and can returns if there is a redemption center in the area. 

Both bills passed committees Thursday. 

However, lawmakers said they are frustrated that years of negotiations among grocers, distributors and redemption centers have not solved the perennial debate over updating the law. 

State Sen. Liz Mathis is a Democrat from Hiawatha. (Photo courtesy of Iowa Legislature)

Sen. Liz Mathis, D-Hiawatha, said she has served on committees and study groups on the issue for years. It’s time to fix issues with the law, she said.

Mathis said issues include payments to redemption centers, the need to apply the deposit to bottled waters and other products not on the market when the anti-litter law took effect in 1979, and making sure returns are easy for consumers.

“When you say this is a transition bill, I had hoped we could do much better than this,” Mathis told fellow lawmakers. “We owe the public the hard work to get the bottle bill solved this legislative session,” she added.

The bottle bill applies a nickel deposit to many beer and soda cans and bottles. Neither the deposit nor the penny per container handling fee paid to redemption centers has changed since the law took effect. 

Members of a House committee had similar concerns with the House bill.

Rep. Shannon Lundgren, R-Peosta, said it is a complicated debate. “We have a dilemma here in this state, a few problems that need fixing. Retailers want to opt out. Consumers want to be able to return their cans and bottles conveniently and get their deposit back, and redemption centers want more money,” Lundgren said. 

Lundgren asked representatives to advance the bill to the floor to continue the discussion. 

Rep. Molly Donahue, D-Cedar Rapids, opposed the bill. “There is much that needs to be done to make this workable,” she said.

Rep. Christina Bohannan, D-Iowa City, said the bill would require consumers to drive too far to redeem containers at redemption centers. She supported applying the deposit to more containers, raising payments for redemption centers and using unclaimed deposits to improve the system.

“We just need the political courage to do what needs to be done,” Bohannan said. 

A couple of Republicans said they didn’t like the current bill in the House, but voted for it to keep the debate alive. 

“I also hate this bill, but I understand it is the vehicle for moving forward,” said Rep. Megan Jones, R-Sioux Rapids.

Rep. Brent Siegrist is a Republican from Council Bluffs. (Photo courtesy of House of Representatives)

Former House Speaker Brent Siegrist, R-Council Bluffs, who returned to the House this year after being out of office since 2003, said he also objects to the bill. “I don’t like this bill, and I don’t like the bill in the Senate,” Siegrist said. 

Siegrist supported advancing the House measure to encourage debate. He added: “Then we get the competing interests in a room and beat the hell out of them until they come to a conclusion after 20 years, because this is ridiculous. They need to get their act together and they all need to make a concession.”

The bills needed to clear a committee this week to stay eligible for debate this session.

A third bill, Senate File 470, passed the Natural Resources and Environment Committee and is in the Ways and Means Committee. That bill would allow retailers to opt out of taking containers if there is a redemption center within 20 miles. It also would raise payments to redemption centers.