SACRAMENTO — At a recent dinner for legislators, Assemblyman Burt Margolin (D-Los Angeles) jokingly tried to enlist California First Lady Gloria Deukmejian to back his controversial bill to require a deposit on beverage containers.
Margolin lightheartedly suggested that the Deukmejian family beagles--Sniffer, Berry and Pup--could benefit from the bill because it would reduce the broken glass littering parks and sidewalks.
Margolin's banter allowed him to gently underscore his point, according to another guest at the dinner.
Indeed, the two-term lawmaker has earned a reputation for using humor in a disarming fashion. One colleague went so far as to describe him as the "Woody Allen of the California Legislature."
But Margolin, who came of age politically in the protest era of the 1960s, is also known for his persistence and willingness to back unpopular and often liberal causes. A case in point is the bottle bill that may reach the Assembly floor this month.
Bottle bills have been proposed at least 14 times in the last 20 years without clearing either house of the Legislature, and in 1982 California voters rejected Proposition 11, which would have enacted a mandatory deposit law.
Margolin said the proposal's legacy of rejection is "part of the challenge of this process--taking a controversial issue like this and forcing the Legislature to confront it."
In fact, Margolin was sought out to carry the bottle bill because supporters wanted a lawmaker who would be "relentless," said Josiah Beeman, who has known Margolin for 20 years and is the lobbyist for Californians Against Waste, which is pushing the bill.
"Burt's a tough adversary," conceded A. E. Davis, lobbyist for glass and can trade associations opposed to the proposal. But he predicted ultimate defeat for the bill, which he criticized as part of the "liberal activists' agenda."
May Delay Vote
The bill was approved by the Assembly Natural Resources Committee by a 7-5 margin last month. But Margolin has conceded that rounding up 41 votes for passage by the full Assembly may be harder and he may delay a vote until next year.
The bill would require a deposit of at least a nickel for plastic or glass containers of soft drinks, beer, wine and other alcoholic beverages.
In the bill, Margolin argues that "the increasing use of disposable beverage containers imposes enormous and unjustified costs on local governments for municipal solid waste handling and litter control."
Before agreeing to introduce the measure, Margolin said, he reviewed the experience of the eight other states with bottle laws and determined that the laws have increased recycling and decreased litter.
Lobbyist Davis contends, however, that Margolin "was leaned on hard and heavy" by a coalition of environmental groups to introduce the bill "without checking the other side."
Although Davis concedes that litter has been reduced in some states with similar laws, he said that is only because of increased government spending for cleanup. Furthermore, he said, the price of beer and soft drinks has risen in those states because of the extra cost of handling empty containers, and jobs for skilled container makers have been reduced.
The Republican Assembly Caucus has assailed the Margolin bill as "one more measure in the perennial attempt to interject government into private enterprise."
While Margolin's positions often are attacked by conservatives, he is seldom criticized personally.
For example, Assemblyman Larry Stirling (R-San Diego) said, "he's fair, except on law enforcement issues he's Mr. Liberal."
Stirling, a conservative who is chairman of the Criminal Law and Public Safety Committee, of which Margolin is vice chairman, often finds himself at odds with the Westside lawmaker as they review anti-crime legislation.
He asserted that Margolin supports the American Civil Liberties Union position on bills "95% of the time." In Stirling's mind that "is not a balanced view" since it results in "more delays" and "more roadblocks" in prosecuting and sentencing criminals.
Margolin, however, said he shouldn't automatically be pegged as a liberal.
"People from the '60s," he said, "have to be hard-headed enough to recognize that there are people out there who don't belong in the streets and who are a danger to us all."
"And if I'm persuaded that (there is) an additional type of crime that needs to be created or a sentence is inadequate, I'll vote for the bill."
But, he cautioned, "I'm not going to vote for every proposal brought to me because it has the label 'anti-crime measure.' "
Despite their differences, Stirling says he regards Margolin as a person of high integrity.
"His approach is sort of refreshing," said Gerald Meral, a lobbyist for the League of Conservation Voters and a former deputy director of the state Department of Water Resources. "With Burt, we talk more about the merits (of an issue) than his political problems."