Monday, August 24, 2009

Legislate First, Think Later

Government continually passes legislation and leaves it for the rest of us to sort out. We saw this with the New York State bottle bill.

Remember this:

ALBANY — The more they learn about New York's new expanded bottle law, say those who produce and distribute beverages here, the more they worry about how they will comply.

Bottlers and brewers were caught off-guard by an anti-fraud provision in the so-called Bigger, Better Bottle Bill, which was promoted mainly for including water bottles in deposit and return programs.

The law, signed last week by Gov. David Paterson, mandates unique electronic scanner bar codes for containers sold and returned in New York.

"It hit us at the last minute," said Steve DiLoreto, plant manager for Ball Metal Container Corp., which makes more than 3 billion 12-ounce aluminum beer and soft drink cans each year at W.J. Grande Industrial Park in Saratoga Springs.

Ball's locally produced cans feature more than 400 different labels for beers, sodas and juices, and DiLoreto estimated the plant has "several hundred million" cans now printed and ready to go.

Ball cans are produced for beverages made by companies including Anheuser-Busch, Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Welch's and Matt Brewing Co. About 75 percent of those products will be distributed inside New York, DiLoreto said.

"We build inventory all year to supply our customers through the summer," he said. "We're at our high mark right now in terms of inventory. Obviously, we couldn't afford to scrap all those good cans."

Most new portions of the bottle law take effect June 1, but DiLoreto doesn't know how his company can meet that deadline.

"It would add duplicative inventories of cans for anything sold outside of New York state," he said. "We'd have to redevelop graphics for every label we run. There is a digital graphics process for the printing plates, and our customers have to approve any graphics changes to their labels."

DiLoreto estimated the cost of producing the new graphics alone at $600,000 to $700,000. There would be additional costs to set up the duplicate inventories, warehouse the duplicate cans, and modify production schedules.

"Those costs are just hard to quantify on the short notice we've had, but they're extensive," he said.

Garry Brown, president of Brown's Brewing Co. in Troy, said he, too, has questions about how the new bottle law will affect his business.

Brown's has six labels in action for its bottled beers right now. And while the company doesn't distribute outside of New York, it's unclear whether it will need to create new New York-specific bar codes to comply with the law, Brown said.

If so, "that's a problem because there's going to be a retooling cost," he said. "We just sent in two more labels (for printing). You buy these things by the thousands at a clip."

It is unclear whether amendments to address the concerns of brewers, bottlers and distributors are likely.

"The New York bar code is designed to prevent out-of-state containers being brought to New York," Paterson spokeswoman Erin Duggan said.

"The governor's staff have been meeting with distributors, beer companies, retailers and other parties," she said. "They are closely examining the practical implications of this provision of the new law."

Shouldn't the practical implications been worked out before the legislation was passed? But, that's not how government works. Government does not have to be accountable for the logistics once the legislation is passed. It only collects the fees, taxes and fines associated with the new law. The businesses and, in some cases, local authorities are tasked with figuring out the practical implications of the law.

Government, especially in New York State, is reactive. The Bigger Better Bottle bill is nothing more than a feel good piece of legislation that deals with less than 10% of the waste stream. Instead of being pro-active and putting together a comprehensive recycling scheme, we have this piecemeal legislation that ends up penalizing one business. Heaven forbid we look to find ways to improve across the board recycling aimed at convenience.

Now we have this new legislation in Maine aimed at the wine tasting industry.

Families normally wouldn't take a child to a wine tasting.

But in the Belgrade Lakes, tourists stop in the Bacchus House of Wine to sample and buy with their tots in tow.

Beth Hudson, who owns the shop, said she always accepted that children could be part of the experience.

But that will soon change.

A new law that goes into effect Sept. 12 will prohibit children from observing wine tastings.

Hudson said she isn't sure how to comply with that. Her Main Street wine shop has ceiling-to-floor windows and glass doors. The windows have blinds that she could close, but an inspector from the Maine Bureau of Liquor Enforcement & Licensing told her that is not acceptable.

"I said I could close the blinds, and he said no," Hudson said. "I would have to partition off or put up some draperies. Look at my store. How am I supposed to do that? We usually have (wine tastings) in front of the fireplace and we serve cheese and crackers. In order to do that, people would have to be cramped in a smaller space. It would appear like the adults were doing something shameful.

"If they don't want children seeing people drinking why do they allow them in restaurants?"

An amendment to L.D. 498 by Rep. David Webster, D-Freeport, states, "Taste-testing activities must be conducted in a manner that precludes the possibility of observation by children."

In the final days of the last legislation session, Webster said, a bill came forward that would allow not only wine tastings, but beer and hard liquor tastings in any off-premises retail including grocery stores.

No changes were made to the laws allowing children in liquor stores or restaurants that serve alcohol.

Webster said it was never his intention to hurt small wine shops; his amendment was supposed to target large grocery stores where families shop with children.

Unfortunately, the only way to modify the law is in legislative session and the next one doesn't start until January, he said. So the law will go into effect Sept. 12.

"We're scheduled to go back in January, but unless there's a special session there's no way of changing this," he said. "I'm doing everything I can to reduce the adverse impact. No one is disputing that we've got to fix this."

He [Lt. David Bowler, of the Department of Maine Public Safety Liquor Licensing and Inspections Unit] said wording in the new law also makes it difficult for wine, beer and spirits retailers to acquire permits to conduct tastings.

"The way they word it is, if someone wanted to do the spirits tasting, they have to have 200 codes ... say a fifth of Jim Bean is one code, a pint would be one code and little airport-size bottle another code," he said. "The wine tasting is 125 labels and beer is 100 different brands. They should have worded it either codes or labels. And we've discussed brands. What is a brand? Is a brand Budweiser or everything that falls under it? Is Bud Lite a brand? At some point we're going to have to get a ruling from the attorney general's office to tell us what is considered a brand."

There goes the government again: legislating first and thinking later.

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