AUGUSTA — House lawmakers voted Tuesday to override Gov. Paul LePage’s veto of a bill that would impose a refundable 5-cent deposit on the miniature liquor bottles known as “nips.”

The 114-31 vote came days after LePage once again threatened to end sales of the increasingly popular single-serve, 50-milliliter liquor bottles in Maine if lawmakers move forward with including nips in the state’s bottle deposit program. The bill now heads to the Republican-controlled Senate for consideration, likely later this week.

During floor debate, supporters argued that incorporating nips into Maine’s decades-old “bottle bill” would help reduce roadside litter by encouraging people to return the bottles for a nickel refund. Sales of nips have grown dramatically in recent years, with sales topping 8 million bottles in 2016 and expected to reach 12 million bottles this fiscal year. At the same time, however, supporters of the bill complained that too many users are tossing the small liquor bottles to the curb or along the roadside.

Rep. Roger Jason Fuller, D-Lewiston, used the example of his lunch to illustrate the environmental consequences of so many nips bottles lying uncollected in the dirt.

“My sandwich will take me all of five minutes to consume, while the plastic bag that contains my sandwich will take 50 years to rot,” Fuller said. “The nips we leave on the side of the road will take no less than 450 years to decompose.”

As originally proposed, the bill would have required retailers to collect a 15-cent deposit – consistent with all other wine and liquor containers in Maine – on every 50-milliliter nips bottle, which often cost about $1 to purchase. A compromise negotiated, in part, with a major liquor distiller that has a facility in Maine reduced that deposit to a nickel.

In his veto letter, LePage said the bill failed to address the serious issue of drunken driving if so many people are tossing back nips and then discarding them out of the car window to avoid being caught with an empty container. Rather than adding 50-milliliter “nips” to Maine’s bottle deposit bill, LePage said lawmakers should either increase penalties for littering or ban sales of the bottles altogether.

“Absent increased penalties, which this bill failed to impose, an alternative approach is to discontinue the sale of 50ml bottles containing alcohol all together,” LePage wrote. “If this bill passes, I have directed the Bureau of Alcoholic Beverage and Lottery Operations to work with the Liquor and Lottery Commission to delist these products for sale in Maine.”

But Rep. Bob Duchesne, D-Hudson, said the bill, L.D. 56, was aimed at using Maine’s successful “bottle bill” to reduce the issue of roadside litter.

“What gets thrown on the side of the road, we add a nickel deposit. We have done it for years, we are just adding nips,” Duchesne said. “If there is a drunk driving problem I will be the first to support the chief executive’s bill when it comes up next session to fight this. The bottle bill doesn’t fight drunk driving. It just gets litter off of the road as best we can.”

More than 40 percent of all nips sold in Maine last fiscal year were Fireball, a type of cinnamon-flavored whiskey bottled at the Lewiston facility owned by Sazerac Co., the nation’s largest distiller. The CEO of Sazerac, Mark Brown, had been involved in legislative discussions to reduce the original 15-cent deposit to 5 cents. But in a letter sent last month to a legislative leader, Brown warned that the governor’s threat to end nips sales in Maine would have “a drastic impact on our company and our employees.”

Sazerac employs roughly 130 people at the Lewiston plant.

“While we could have lived with a 5-cent redemption sticker if the state really thought that would solve the littering problem, we can no longer support the legislation while under the threat of having 50 mls delisted,” wrote Brown. “Such a move would be detrimental to the state’s finances as this is one of the fastest-growing sectors in Maine.”

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