Slow Formal Session Ends: Berkshire Reps Expect Busy 2016
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — Changes in state leadership has led to a slow start to the legislative session, according to the local representatives.
Formal session concluded for the year last week and all four local members of the House of Representatives said they had hoped to accomplish more by this point. But, the lawmakers say when the session resumes in January, there will be a lot on the agenda.
"It's been moving more slowly than any other session I've been in. I like to think it is happening because we have a new governor, though he has been in for 10 months he is still relatively new, and a new Senate president. As both of those gentlemen are getting their feet under them and getting their priorities straight, I've found that we've taken more time working on budgetary matters and some of the policy stuff has been taking a back step lately," 2nd Berkshire District Rep. Paul Mark said.
"I'm hoping we will hit a better stride when formal sessions resume in January."
The most notable bill that failed to be passed was to raise the net metering cap to incentivize and move solar projects along. Most of the state's utilities have hit the cap, which allows customers to sell electricity back to the grid, so the incentive for solar projects have been decreased. Several projects in the Berkshires also have been sidetracked. The House of Representatives passed one bill to raise the cap and the Senate passed another. But, the two branches of government couldn't come to terms on a final product.
Mark filed a bill to raise the cap and Speaker of the House Robert DeLeo even announced at a Greenfield event that it would be raised this calendar year. But the Senate's bill contained differences, including limits to the cap increase and the time period for project's being grandfathered, which couldn't be overcome in time.
"The bill that emerged was not something that was enthusiastically received so we were looking to find a compromise which would balance the elements from what the Senate passed, what my bill contained, and what the house telecom and utilities leadership was looking for," the Peru Democrat said. "Unfortunately, we just didn't get there."
3rd Berkshire District Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier said she wanted the cap to be raised by 4 percent to keep the projects poised for 2016 on track. She also advocated for increased reimbursement rates for community solar projects. But, at the same time, she says the state needs to back off from incentivizing solar and craft a more comprehensive energy policy.
"We have been incentivizing solar for a long time and at some point they need to move on and be a viable business on their own or with limited government help. When it comes to renewable energy there is a whole portfolio of renewable energy we need to be looking at, not just solar," the Pittsfield Democrat said. "Off-shore wind could be very viable for Massachusetts. The governor is looking at hydro, that should be an option. And from what I understand, solar, no matter how good we make it, will still be a small percentage of our renewable energy."
1st Berkshire District Rep. Gailanne Cariddi said a more comprehensive energy policy is "on the horizon." She said she though the net-metering bill included too many other pieces and it should have instead focused solely on raising the cap while a more encompassing policy is crafted.
"Solar is not yet built out enough and there still needs to be incentives. These other reforms can be made over a longer period," Cariddi said.
A net-metering bill could still pass during informal sessions and if not, the representatives say it will be a top priority in 2016.
4th Berkshire District Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli said the branches just got to the net-metering piece too late in the year. The session has been impacted by a new administration, which had extra time to submit a budget, and a particularly snowy winter that shut Boston down many times early on, Pignatelli said.
"The fall session is short to begin with so it is about positioning. We had a very aggressive hearing schedule on our bills and it is about positioning for when do get back into formal session in January to get it to the finish line before we adjourn on Aug. 1," said the Lenox Democrat. "It will be a mad dash. We will have a very busy next year."
Pignatelli expects Gov. Charlie Baker's proposed opioid bill to be first up for debate. Baker introduced legislation that allows hospitals to hold patients suffering from overdoses for 72 hours and for prescribers to limit opioid prescriptions to just 72 hours worth.
"There were 56 overdoses in the Berkshires in just the first six months of this calendar year. We're seeing a big increases in overdoses between the ages of 20 and 29. We are seeing this as a societal problem. It is not race bias, it is not age bias, it is a societal problem and we have to deal with it," Pignatelli said.
Farley-Bouvier sits on the Joint Committee on Mental Health and Substance Abuse, which recently held an 8 1/2 hour hearing on the bill. She calls the bill "bold" but is asking the governor to be "bolder." She is advocating for more resources to be put toward short-term and transitional care — such as increases in sober halfway houses and more recovery assistance.
"There is concern over two aspects of this bill. One is the ability for doctors to have up to 72 hours holds on patients and the limiting of 72 hours worth of opioid prescription," Farley-Bouvier said. "Hospitals are concerned that they don't have the resources to keep patients that long and then really importantly, what they are going to do with the patient afterwards? It doesn't make sense to hold patients for 72 hours if there isn't a plan for afterwards."
The Pittsfield representative said when someone recovers from Narcan, an overdose reversal drug, it affects them physiologically in that they are combative and do not want treatment. The 72-hour hold can give families and doctors time to find somewhere for that person to go.
In October, the state had increased the time insurance companies are required to pay for detoxification from one week to two weeks. However, the legislators all say that should be extended to at least 21 days.
"It gives you a chance to start to feel better about yourself. It gives us an opportunity to find the next level of care, meaning a bed or the next treatment for that care. It just buys everybody a little more time," Pignatelli said.
The gap local lawmakers are concerned with is the number of beds available in the Berkshires for recovery programs.
"My thing is that we need long-term help for people who have this disease," Cariddi said. "We need a long-term approach to get them the help that they need to be off of this stuff for the rest of their lives and become productive citizens like we all want them to be."
By the end of the formal session, lawmakers did pass a fentanyl trafficking bill. Fentanyl is an opioid that wasn't covered under drug-trafficking laws. The governor signed the bill that makes trafficking in the painkiller more serious a crime than before.
"You want a user to get help, to get assistance. We don't want to put more people that are having a problem with addiction in jail. The idea here is for if you are dealing, you are one of those people who are preying on addicts and making the situation worse. Now we are giving law enforcement a tool to use so that these people can be prosecuted as well," Mark said.
The House of Representatives this month unanimously approved new public records reform, which updates the law last amended in 1973. The goal of the bill is to increase transparency and access to public records.
However, the bill hit difficulty when the Massachusetts Municipal Association and many towns opposed it, giving examples of onerous requests that could force towns to hire somebody just to collect and sort the requested records.
"While a lot of people agree they should have access to their government and have transparency in the records, there are, in fact, cases all over the commonwealth where people are coming in and asking for unreasonable amounts of information and it costs the municipality to produce those," Farley-Bouvier said.
Municipalities and state departments must designate a person responsible for responding in a timely manner to requests. The bill's provisions also sets timelines for response, including 10 days for the initial response to a request and then 60 days or 75 days to finalize the request depending on the information.
"Instead of just having that 10 days and nobody replies or it is not happening the way you want to, you have that person to go to in the secretary of state's office," Farley-Bouvier said.
Other provisions helping to bring the MMA on board include allowing small towns to hire a vendor to sort any larger requests and having a contract between the requester and the agency to pay the agreed upon costs ahead of time. Mark said the bill also encourages towns to make more records available online.
"It was long overdue. It hadn't been done since the '70s. The bill was out there for some time. When it was released from committee it ran into opposition from municipalities and the Massachusetts Municipal Association," Cariddi said. "So more amendments were made to the first part of the legislation to bring it forward again in a form that was more acceptable to municipalities so that it does not pose an unfunded mandate."
The House also passed a number of bills for veterans, most notably a "stolen valor act" that makes it a crime to impersonate having military status for financial gain.
"It is just a despicable act that you would lie about being a veteran and make money on it," Mark said. "It is something that hadn't been on the books."
The state also strengthened the penalties for stealing veterans' grave makers and passed a bill to allow purple heart recipients to use state parks for free.
"It seems like every year they find some other little thing that we don't cover for veterans bills. Massachusetts is on the top for veterans bills but this year they found that it wasn't a penalty for someone to impersonate a veteran to receive benefits," Cariddi said.
Grave markers have been a growing issue with many being stolen and sold for the metal. Mark said the House also passed a bill to help recyclers ensure the metal they are buying isn't stolen.
"There wasn't a good system in place. Say a spool of copper wire came in, how could they verify that it wasn't stolen from somewhere? So this new legislation will allow for a 48-hour period where agencies and metal dealers can check and find out the origin of the metal and see if there are any reported thefts in the area," Mark said.
He said he toured a Greenfield recycling company whose operators said stolen items hurt their business. They often have to spend time and money tracking down and giving back items they'd bought.
Farley-Bouvier is co-chairing a subcommittee focused specifically at looking into the Department of Families and Children. The DCF has come under fire multiple times in recent years including high-profile cases like Baby Doe and Jeremiah Oliver. Farley-Bouvier is hoping her subcommittee can dig into those issues and in the next session find ways to improve the department.
"When the Jeremiah Oliver case broke, the sense was that every few years something happens and we seem to react to that. The goal of this committee is that we wouldn't have people starting from square one trying to react. We would have a small group of legislators really dig into those things because in a couple of years another bad thing is going to happen. What can we do to try to stop it?" Farley-Bouvier said.
"We haven't been having issues every couple of years. We've been having issues every couple of months. We had the Bella Bond case, with that little girl whose body was found. Every couple of months it just keeps happening. So what is going on? We are learning things like that we have a severe lack of foster families and we are learning from foster families that they don't feel supported."
She is finding social workers also do not feel supported when they confront families and that there is an "alarmingly high" turnover rate among workers in the department.
"Our goal over the next six to eight weeks is to start talking to families and talking to foster families, to social workers, and really try to get into the details of that department. There have been so many concerns there," Farley-Bouvier said.
Meanwhile, Cariddi is the vice chairman of the Joint Committee on Economic Development and Emerging Technologies, which will be looking into the fantasy sports issues. There has been debate nationally over companies like DraftKings and FanDuel, which have launched fantasy sports betting and triggering questions over the legality of the operations.
"In whatever we do, it should be ensured that they operate like the Lottery or a gaming establishment in that if your take is over $600, the Department of Revenue gets the first swipe at it to make sure you don't owe any taxes, child support, or anything of that nature. And then the net proceeds after paying state taxes come back," Cariddi said.
The North Adams Democrat said the Gaming Commission is expected the release a report on the issue soon. Also regarding gambling, the committee found itself wrapped into a controversial issue with betting machines — like video poker — in establishments like the American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars.
"Apparently, there has been some aggressive enforcement and the law is kind of shady on this on the part of the treasurer to remove those gaming devices," Cariddi said. "In a lot of cases, those gaming machines help the club run."
The committee is looking to allow the clubs to have 10 machines.
"These were all people from the eastern part of the state and my comment on that is perhaps they are only enforcing in the areas where casinos are being proposed and they want the casinos not to have competition. It could be lobbying by casinos to make sure there is not much competition out there," Cariddi said. "But what brought the controversy out is a guy who has a restaurant came and said, 'if they can have it, why can't I have it?' He was pretty adamant about that."
Cariddi expects those issues to become a focus in the next year.
Pignatelli sits on the Higher Education Committee and is hoping to pass legislation to help solve student debt issues. Last year, Mark headed a subcommittee that released a report on student debt but that hasn't yet translated into law.
"Paul did a good job issuing his report when he was on higher ed. Now he isn't on higher ed so it is up to us to pick it up and run with it. That hasn't happened yet and that is very frustrating to me because Paul did do a lot of good work and we need to build upon that and get something across the finish line," Pignatelli said.
Pignatelli says he wants to particularly look at financial aid and to increase the amount of state aid to state schools. He said private universities, such as Harvard with its billion dollar endowment, can help students with financial aid. Pignatelli hopes to decrease the state's financial aid to students going to private schools and instead add more aid to students attending state universities.
"We need to get a little more aggressive in trying to solve the student-debt issues," Pignatelli said.
Mark, too, is hoping his report will translate into laws.
"The higher ed stuff is a little more complicated because I know the committee is on board. It is just what the final piece will look like and, of course, there is money involved so that will bring us right into budget season," Mark said.
On a local level, Pignatelli has been working with his towns on shared services. All 17 towns in South County have signed onto an agreement to enhance collaboration through such things as sharing inspectors or group purchasing of supplies. Pignatelli says he is going to continue helping the towns on that effort as well as the effort among school districts to do the same.
"It was hard to get 17 towns to sign up and agree to it but we've proven it can be done," Pignatelli said. "The Berkshires is such a unique geographic location and very unique demographics. We're bordering three states, north to south, over 900 square miles. If we can get on the same page on some of these things and maintain our individuality, enhancing services, and saving taxpayer money at every level of government and schools, that's a home run."
He says he wants to take what those towns have done and expand it to all of Berkshire County.
While changes in leadership may have led to a slow start this session, all of the representatives say the new Republican administration is trying hard to build a strong working relationship with the Democratically controlled Legislature.
"I find there is a positive working relationship between the House and Senate leadership and the administration. I find that Democrats and Republicans are repeatedly saying they are having a good time working with the governor and his people. I have no complaints in any dealings I've had with any administrative agency," Mark said.
"Where I've found disappointment is that the governor and or his agencies have cut multiple projects in my district that were promised."
Those projects include state forest funding in Hawley, a $2 million public safety complex in Heath, and a $9 million child-care center for Greenfield Community College. That's been frustrating, he said.
Pignatelli says the various state agencies have all come to his office and are willing to meet and discuss issues, boding well for a working relationship in the future.
Another dynamic still playing out is the relationship with the House and the Senate. All of the legislators said the two branches of government seem to be turning out bills that are dramatically different from each other.
"I sometimes feel there is a disconnect between the House's version and the Senate's version. We need to get beyond the egos and start working together for the good of the commonwealth," Pignatelli said.
Pignatelli said DeLeo, Baker and Senate President Stan Rosenberg will ultimately find ways to work together.
"I think they are getting to know each other and figuring out how to move things forward. It seems like we've had a slow start but it means we just have more things teed up for the next few months," Farley-Bouvier said.
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