On January 14, Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker vetoed sweeping climate legislation, which would have set ambitious environmental, social, and clean energy goals.
A bill summary of S.229, “An Act Creating a Next-Generation Roadmap for Massachusetts Climate Policy,” laid out several key provisions.
The bill would have established a 2050 net-zero greenhouse-gas emissions limit, as well as statewide limits every five years instead of 10; raised Massachusetts’ renewable portfolio standard by 3% annually for 2025-2029, ensuring that at least 40% of the state’s electric power would be renewable by 2030; mandated more offshore wind energy procurement; set a number of energy efficiency requirements; pumped millions of dollars into clean energy workforce development; and, for the first time, codified in state law the criteria defining “environmental justice” populations.
According to the summary, the bill also included several solar-specific provisions.
It would have loosened net energy metering (NEM) caps by ending “load zone” restrictions; exempted large businesses from the NEM cap; mandated a state agency to prioritize low-income communities in its SMART solar program; closed a gap in the NEM law to enable small municipal buildings to host rooftop solar; bolstered utilities’ rights to own solar projects; and created a new solar energy grant program for nonprofits helping those in need.
The bill also included a long-awaited agreement between state tax assessors and developers. The Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) played a major role in reaching the compromise, which would have provided critical tax certainty for solar projects.
As David Gahl, SEIA’s senior director of state affairs, explained when the bill was passed, “In short, homeowners and small businesses will not see their property taxes increase when they install small solar systems. Larger solar systems will be exempt from taxes if they already have an agreement in place for other tax payments.”
Following months of negotiations, state lawmakers passed the bill on January 4 in an eleventh-hour vote before the legislative session ended. With the session closing shortly after the bill reached his desk, the governor had little time to return the bill for amendments. He was left with three options: sign the bill into law, “pocket veto” the legislation by doing nothing within a 10-day deadline, or veto the bill. He ultimately chose the latter.
In a letter to lawmakers, Baker said that although he supports the bill’s goals and is “largely in agreement with many of its proposals,” he “reluctantly” couldn’t sign the legislation in its current form.
Specifically, Baker said some of the the bill’s provisions, including a proposed net zero energy stretch code, would hinder the state’s development and affordable housing initiatives.
“While my administration wholeheartedly supports the environmental justice goals of this bill, intent without the tools to address those issues are empty promises,” Baker wrote. “This bill does not have language or funding to address the ongoing impacts of climate change faced by those communities.”
In the letter, Baker claimed the bill didn’t rely on “scientific and detailed data analysis” and used “certain out-of-date policies” to devise some of its emissions goals, which may be too aggressive and risk “undue expense.” He also noted concerns about potential economic impacts to large sectors as the state works to recover from the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic.
The Baker administration has a history of supporting renewables and climate change initiatives, most recently outlining new goals and releasing a duo of roadmap reports.
However, State Sen. Mike Barrett said in a statement he was “perplexed” by the governor’s rationale for the veto, noting that the bill has been in the works for a year and charging that the Baker administration did not raise certain concerns on the “multiple occasions” Barrett’s staff reached out throughout the process.
“The near-total absence of critical feedback from the administration for the entirety of 2020 makes me think the kerfuffle of the past two weeks is really about politics, not policy,” said Barrett.
This is likely not the end of the climate bill. On January 13, when local reports suggested Baker may veto, State Senate President Karen E. Spilka and House Speaker Ronald Mariano issued a joint statement vowing to refile the bill in the new legislative session.
In his letter, Baker said he looked forward to working with the lawmakers to “improve the bill and quickly reach agreement.”
Although there’s hope for a new climate law in Massachusetts, several solar and environmental groups have signaled their disappointment with Baker’s veto.
SEIA’s Gahl, for example, said the trade group “remains committed to seeing meaningful climate legislation passed into law this year.” He added that the tax changes SEIA helped negotiate “need to stay there if we want to continue to grow the Massachusetts solar industry and create jobs.”
Stephan Roundtree Jr., Northeast director of advocacy group Vote Solar, has called for immediate action.
“This outcome is particularly disappointing because, in addition to positioning Massachusetts as a leader on climate-readiness, the bill addresses environmental inequity and injustice,” said Roundtree. “Communities of color, non-English-speaking and under-resourced communities across the commonwealth will continue to bear the brunt of the climate impacts this bill so thoughtfully and robustly sought to address. We fear the consequences of justice delayed.”
Ben Hellerstein, state director for Environment Massachusetts, said, “In the race to 100 percent renewable energy, this bill was going to take us the first few steps out of the starting blocks. We’ll need to do everything in this bill, and a lot more, if we want to cross the finish line.”
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