AUGUSTA — Gov. Paul LePage vowed Tuesday to veto a bipartisan bill that would impose a 5-cent deposit on miniature liquor bottles, and threatened to end sales of the popular “nips” in Maine.

LePage accused lawmakers of passing a bill to reduce litter without considering its administrative costs or possible effects on companies that do business in Maine. Facing a potential legislative override of his veto, the governor also said his administration would – in the event of the bill’s passage – immediately begin the process of “delisting” nips bottles from the state’s authorized liquor products, removing a product that accounts for a growing share of spirits sales and a growing litter problem.

LePage made the veto threat hours after the Maine Senate voted 32-3 to pass a bill that would order retailers to collect a nickel bottle deposit on each 50-milliliter liquor bottle beginning in 2019. The bill, which passed the House last week on a 111-34 vote, is touted by supporters as a way to reduce roadside litter and encourage recycling of the mini liquor bottles

The bill faces more votes in both the House and Senate. Both chambers endorsed the bill by veto-proof margins during initial voting.

Popular miniature bottles of liquor, ‘nips,’ are piling up on Maine roadsides, but a push to impose a 5-cent deposit on them is running into opposition from Gov. LePage. Staff photo by Michele McDonald

The governor also called out the bill’s sponsor, Republican Sen. Tom Saviello of Wilton, who has clashed with the governor in the past and who co-chairs the Legislature’s Environment and Natural Resources Committee.

“Senator Saviello said he would call my bluff that I would delist 50-milliliter ‘nip’ bottles if this bill passes. A Maine legislator should know better than that,” LePage said in a statement. “If this bill passes, I will veto the bill and I will instruct the Bureau of Alcoholic Beverages and Lottery Operations to begin working immediately with the Liquor and Lottery Commission to delist all nips from sale in Maine. I do so with regret, but the severe impact of this bill leaves me no choice.”

In the fiscal year that ended June 30, 2016, the Maine Bureau of Alcoholic Beverages and Lottery Operations sold an estimated 8.4 million nips bottles to agency liquor stores. That figure is expected to surpass 12 million bottles this fiscal year. Backers of the bill now under consideration, L.D. 56, contend that untold numbers of those bottles are causing litter problems as buyers toss the single-serve bottles onto roadsides or along the curb.

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 the bureau’s figures. Fireball is produced by Louisiana-based Sazerac, which has a bottling plant in Lewiston that employs an estimated 120 workers.

The liquor bureau 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 both the House and the Senate 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 state’s liquor distributor. 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.”

Lawmakers have said that delaying the implementation date until 2019 should allow many companies to incorporate the 5-cent deposit notice into their labels, thereby reducing the costs in Maine.

LePage appeared to be responding to comments that Saviello made Tuesday during brief remarks on the Senate floor. Saviello, in turn, alluded to threats by LePage to work to remove nips from Maine stores if the bill passed.

“Somebody who pulls it off the shelf will pull about $7 million in revenue from the state, including about $1 million in tax revenue,” Saviello said. “I would think twice before I did that.”

Saviello said Tuesday night that any costs from the bottle deposit bill would come from the state’s dedicated fund that receives revenues from liquor sales, not from the General Fund, which finances state government. And that liquor fund, Saviello added, would take a financial hit if LePage were to remove nips from store shelves, because of the lost revenue.

Kevin Miller can be contacted at 791-6312 or at:

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