Mass. energy bill offers limited boost to renewables

  • The Massachusetts State House in Boston

Published: 7/31/2018 9:36:14 PM

BOSTON — On the last day of formal meetings for the year, the Massachusetts Legislature grappled Tuesday with unfinished business around issues ranging from clean energy to opioid addiction.

As the House and Senate broke briefly for dinner, it was unclear how much of the pending legislation would make it to Republican Gov. Charlie Baker’s desk by the midnight deadline.

Closed-door negotiations continued over several major bills that had cleared both chambers, but with key differences that needed to be resolved before final votes could be taken. Among them was a wide-ranging economic development bill that if passed would include a gift for shoppers: A reprieve from paying the state’s 6.25 percent sales tax on most items during the weekend of Aug. 11-12.

House and Senate negotiators also were hoping to settle differences on major health care and education bills, as well as a measure originally filed by Baker last year that seeks improved access to addiction treatment and to increase the ranks of “recovery coaches,” who help guide addicts through the process of recovery.

There was agreement on a compromise energy bill that among other things calls for the state to increase its reliance on renewable energy sources by at least 1 percent annually starting in 2019.

Some clean energy advocates complained the bill, which received a near-unanimous vote of approval in the House, doesn’t go far enough. The bill later was approved by the Senate by unanimous vote.

“Lawmakers could have knocked it out of the park,” said Ben Hellerstein, state director for Environment Massachusetts. “Instead, they only got a base hit.”

While the legislation would boost the state’s commitment to clean energy sources such as offshore wind and support new energy storage technologies, Hellerstein said it would not undo restrictions on solar energy production that are holding back prospective solar projects in local communities.

Clean energy advocates also criticized the bill for including trash incineration and biomass within a new “clean peak” standard

“At the last minute, and with virtually no public review, state law-makers gifted the waste industry lobby by allowing garbage incinerators to qualify for new clean energy subsidies during times of peak energy demand,” James McCaffrey, New England legislative director of the Partnership for Policy Integrity, said in a statement.

House lawmakers who participated in negotiations with the Senate conceded the bill was not as sweeping as some advocates had hoped, but they pointed to the complexities of energy policy.

“It wasn’t bold and aggressive, but it was responsible and measured,” said Rep. Brad Jones, the House Republican leader, of the bill.

The House on Tuesday also approved legislation designed to protect the confidentiality of first responders, such as police officers and firefighters, who seek stress counseling after responding to a traumatic incident.

Backers of the proposal noted that for some first responders, there was still a stigma attached to counseling.

“These provisions will help these heroes get the confidential help that they need,” said Democratic House Speaker Robert DeLeo in a statement.

Late Monday, the Legislature rejected Baker’s bid to amend a state budget provision that calls for repealing the state’s so-called “cap on kids.” Under the policy, children who are born to parents already on welfare are denied additional benefits by the state.

Baker said lifting the cap without making other reforms in the welfare system would reduce incentives for welfare recipients to return to work. The governor must now decide whether to sign the original provision or veto it. His spokesman did not immediately return a message seeking comment.

Also on Baker’s desk is a compromise bill approved Monday that would apply state and local lodging taxes to short-term rentals, such as those offered through Airbnb and other online platforms.

Baker has 10 days to act on that and other measures that have reached his desk.

The Legislature can continue to meet informally after Tuesday until the end of the year, but during that time can only act on measures that are completely unopposed.

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