AUGUSTA — A bill that would impose a 5-cent deposit on the miniature liquor bottles known as “nips” advanced in the Legislature on Tuesday.

Touted as a way to reduce littering, the bill would incorporate 50 milliliter liquor bottles into Maine’s successful “bottle bill” requiring retailers to collect a nickel deposit, which is then refunded when the empty bottles are returned. As originally written, the bill proposed a 15-cent deposit – consistent with other wine and liquor bottles in Maine – but the deposit was reduced to 5 cents after negotiations by lawmakers and representatives of the beverage industry.

The House approved the bill, L.D. 56, on a vote of 111-34. The measure, which is sponsored by Rep. Martin Grohman, D-Biddeford, faces additional votes in the House and Senate.

Supporters contend the initiative was necessary to discourage nips drinkers from tossing them out of the car window, while encouraging others to collect the miniature bottles for cash-in at the redemption center. During a public hearing in February, speakers said the nips litter along roadside ditches and lawns increased dramatically with the surging popularity of the mini liquor bottles.

“Let’s get this trash off the highways by using the same mechanism we have been using fairly successfully for the last several decades,” said Rep. Lance Harvell, R-Farmington.

Nips account for an ever-growing share of liquor sales in Maine.

In fiscal year 2016, the Maine Bureau of Alcoholic Beverages and Lottery Operations, or BABLO, sold an estimated 8.4 million nips bottles to agency liquor stores, and that figure is expected to surpass 12 million bottles this fiscal year. Just one brand of liquor, the cinnamon-flavored whiskey product called Fireball, accounted for 42 percent of nips sales in Maine last fiscal year, according to BABLO figures.

BABLO had opposed L.D. 56 in part because of the logistics and costs of applying deposit stickers to each tiny bottle. The version of the bill passed by the House on Tuesday carries an estimated price tag of more than $1 million a year and would potentially require a contract negotiation with Pine State Trading Co., which is the liquor distributor for BABLO. However, the fiscal note stated that it’s anticipated that “the Alcoholic Beverages Fund will have sufficient revenue to fund the additional allocation for the foreseeable future.”

Rep. Ralph Tucker, D-Brunswick, said he does not believe the fiscal impact will be large.

“The problem can be solved by distillers printing into their own labels or by raising the price of the product,” Tucker said, adding that some nips already are priced lower per ounce than larger bottles.

Grohman also said Tuesday evening that he believed the fiscal note exceeding $1 million was unrealistic. The latest version of the bill delays implementation until January 2019, and Grohman predicted that many manufacturers would incorporate the Maine deposit into the labels by that time.

But Rep. MaryAnne Kinney, R-Knox, questioned whether the bill would achieve its goals.

“We are constantly picking up soda and beer cans off of our farm and throughout our woods, and these are already included in the bottle bill here in the state,” Kinney said. “We even have a convenience store that takes the returnables back, right across the street from the field that gets most of these bottles and cans. I don’t see how this is going to solve the problem.”

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