Every 10 years, state legislators are faced with one of their most contentious assignments: setting new boundaries for congressional and state legislative districts. Careers and political power can rise and fall on the results of those decisions. 2011 is one of those years. To add to their problems, legislators also are facing another year of budget shortfalls. As a result, solid waste and recycling issues are likely to get short shrift in favor of more pressing concerns.
While the redistricting decisions will resemble a feeding frenzy in some states, even bigger battles will be fought over budgets. Unlike the federal government, states cannot print money to cover irresponsible spending and tax cutting decisions. Instead, they have to act like adults and pass a balanced budget. Their task will be harder this year because the federal stimulus money that helped prop up state budgets is gone, and most of the accounting games they’ve used in the past to hide fiscal holes are exhausted.
Even though state tax revenues are growing slightly, states are still faced with significant fiscal gaps and painful choices. Programs without a federal mandate or a strong base of supporters will be cut. The Great Recession may be over, but its impact isn’t.
Local governments will be under even greater pressure because many states will balance their budgets by pushing costs down onto counties and cities. They will respond by looking for ways to cut costs and to improve efficiencies. Privatization of solid waste services will continue to increase as the public sector takes advantage of the private sector’s ability to maximize efficiency while lowering costs. Some local governments will try to raise revenue through flow control. Those that do will run into a storm of protests from businesses and residents who know a hidden tax increase when they see one.
Composters will support legislation to divert food and yard waste from disposal. They will cite climate change as a justification, arguing that the easiest way to manage methane emissions is to not create them. However, in this economic climate, they will be hard pressed to explain how to pay for increased diversion programs, especially with the financial benefits of turning landfill gas into an energy source.
I don’t expect to see cuts in recycling programs, nor do I expect to see much in the way of expansion. Instead, at least two states will see concerted attempts to enact “product stewardship” laws covering packaging and printed materials. Supporters will argue that these laws will shift the cost of recycling these materials from local governments to manufacturers. Opponents will note that consumers, not manufacturers, will ultimately foot the bill for these programs and will insist on a tax cut if their taxes are no longer used to support recycling programs.
Climate change legislation is all but dead in the new Congress. Proposed renewable energy or energy efficiency legislation could have provisions favorable to recycling and the conversion of landfill gas into an energy product. Congress might address electronics recycling this year. If so, the legislation is most likely to place some restrictions on exporting discarded electronic products to overseas recyclers. This is probably their safest green vote. And given how contentious 2011 is likely to be, legislators will be looking for a safe, green harbor.