Green Ballot Questions
Air Date: Week of October 16, 1992
Andrew Caffrey of member station WBUR in Boston reports on the array of environmental referenda and initiative petitions on ballots around the country this fall. Activists are increasingly bypassing legislatures and taking their proposals directly to voters, but the trend has also stimulated a backlash at the ballot box.
CURWOOD: In this year's election season, it's not just the candidates with ideas that are on trial before the voters. . . In many places ideas themselves are on trial, in the form of ballot questions. Increasingly, environmental activists, and their opponents, are bypassing balky legislatures and turning to ballot initiatives. As part of our series on environmental issues in the 1992 elections, Andrew Caffrey, of member station WBUR in Boston, reports on a number of this year's green measures, including a Massachusetts battle over recycling.
(Sound of rattling paper bag)
PERRY: I'm going to show you just some samples from a bag of groceries. These are products that people buy, and they're in packaging that people then throw away.
CAFFREY: When it comes to goods and garbage, Amy Perry is an expert. She's spearheading a voter referendum campaign to require products that are sold in Massachusetts be wrapped in recycled or recyclable packaging. Many of the state's landfills are scheduled to close within five years; nearly a third of the garbage in those landfills is wasteful packaging, Perry says, that should be used again. For an example, Perry reaches into her grocery bag of consumer goods.
PERRY: Again, it's a container that, as far as I know, is made up of several different kinds of materials that clearly can't be recycled in any program in Massachusetts. It's plastic, it has a plastic top, it has a different kind of plastic side . . . (Fade under)
CAFFREY: Curbside recycling is popular in many Massachusetts communities, but Perry says the lack of demand for reusable materials has kept many programs from expanding, and even forced some communities to cut back. Perry and her supporters hope to create a market for recycled material by forcing product makers to incorporate used paper, plastic, glass and metal in their goods and packaging. The initiative is on the Massachusetts ballot because environmentalists have been unable to get a recycling bill through the State Legislature five years running. The direct ballot route has become more popular recently, prompted by what many groups see as legislative gridlock or hostility to new environmental programs. There are at least 33 major environmental propositions in 17 states, according to Roy Morgan of Americans for the Environment. Morgan says there is no one theme among the ballot referenda, but rather a variety of environmental subjects.
MORGAN: I think it illustrates the environmental movement is quite a diverse panoply of groups, and reflects a number of interests. Some of these are traditional environmental efforts to preserve parkland, create new parkland, and some of these efforts are more activist in nature.
CAFFREY: In Colorado, an initiative would limit hunting of its fast-diminishing black bear population. Ohio has been ranked third by the EPA in overall toxic pollution, so environmentalists are sponsoring a right-to-know initiative that would disclose chemical content of products. And in Austin, Texas, voters in August approved three separate land conservation measures to preserve a drinking water aquifer. These types of environmental programs enjoy wide support among the electorate, according to Roy Morgan. His analysis found voters approved 60 percent of the environmental initiatives on the ballot in 1990. But environmental referenda are encountering increasingly well-organized opposition -- especially land conservation measures. Among the most prominent of this new opposition is "People for the West!" Barbara Grannell is head of the Colorado-based organization.
GRANNELL: I think when you are a multi-billion dollar special interest agenda like the environmental agenda in this country is, then you have the money and the power to put anything on the ballot that you want. And what has to happen is for other people who might have a different point of view, or a more balanced, moderate point of view, to get involved in the process, and that's what has to happen.
CAFFREY: But environmentalists charge that it's industry which has been willing to spend heavily to defeat environmental referenda. In Massachusetts, for example, the major petrochemical and national brands companies have, by mid-October, ponied up more than 4 million dollars against the recycling campaign's 130 thousand dollar budget. A common theme advanced by corporate opponents is that environmental programs are expensive in such tough economic times. Such sophisticated opposition has Roy Morgan of Americans for the Environment worried. He warns his fellow environmentalists to expect a much harder time at the ballot box.
MORGAN: One, there's a lot of organized opposition to them. Two, they're more expensive than they might have been in the past. And three, you've got to convince the voters that these measures which do cost are good investments in the long run.
CAFFREY: But even losing at the ballot box does not necessarily mean the end of a particular environmental cause. In Oregon, for example, the plastics and packaging industry spent millions to defeat a recycling proposal two years ago. But in its next session, the Oregon Legislature brought the two sides together and passed a scaled-down version of the recycling question. Joel Areo, policy director of the National Environmental Law Center, says the ballot campaign was a wake-up call to industry.
AREO: That was what got their attention, and they saw that if they didn't participate constructively in making recycling progress, they could expect to see another similar ballot initiative here in 1992. They didn't want to see that.
CAFFREY: Though this is a record year for referenda politics, specialists say 1994 may actually be a more contentious season at the ballot box, because the opposition has taken a page out of the environmentalists' play book. In Arizona, for example, landowners have already prepared a referendum that would make conservation takings by the state more difficult. And environmental watchers expect similar initiatives to appear on ballots in at least several other states. For Living on Earth, this is Andrew Caffrey in Boston.
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