BOSTON (SHNS) – There is no question that the pandemic has significantly altered agendas and priorities in the Legislature, and with the time to tackle big issues running out leaders are being pressed from multiple directions to address bills dealing with climate change.
Climate legislation had figured to be a focus of the legislative session’s home stretch since the House and Senate had each passed major climate-related bills before most business was put on hold. Now, with five weeks to go in the session and other hefty matters still incomplete, one key lawmaker is trying to rally colleagues to finish the job before the July 31 end of formal sessions.
“We are in a position to achieve significant progress on climate before the end of session — including raising our requirements for reducing greenhouse gas emissions to at least Net Zero by 2050 or sooner — by working together and acting with urgency,” a statement that Sen. Marc Pacheco is asking other lawmakers to sign onto says.
Meanwhile, business groups are leading a parallel effort urging the House to reject many of the ideas that the Senate has embraced.
Towards the end of January, it seemed almost certain that the governor would be signing some kind of climate bill this summer. On the same day that month, Gov. Charlie Baker, House Speaker Robert DeLeo and Senate President Karen Spilka all declared their support for net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, a policy that climate change activists have been pushing for years. Both branches have passed climate-related bills, but the shared goal still hasn’t been formalized.
The House last July unanimously approved a roughly $1.3 billion bill — the so-called GreenWorks bill — centered around grants to help communities adapt to climate change impacts, and at the end of January the Senate overwhelmingly passed a suite of climate bills that called for net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, and set deadlines for the state to impose carbon-pricing mechanisms for transportation, commercial buildings and homes.
“People wanted to get radical, they wanted to get dramatic, and I think we gave them the bill they were looking for,” Sen. Michael Barrett, the Senate chair of the Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy Committee, said after the January session.
In a letter this week to House leaders, a coalition of some of the most powerful business and trade groups in the state made clear that they do not want the House to follow the Senate’s radical and dramatic lead.
“Representing twenty of the Commonwealth’s largest business, employer, housing, labor and trade associations we recognized [in January], as now, the importance of advancing our climate leadership and the urgent need for bold action,” the Mass. Coalition for Sustainable Energy wrote to DeLeo and House Ways and Means Chairman Rep. Aaron Michlewitz. “However, after reviewing in depth S2500, An Act Setting Next-Generation Climate Policy — and in light of the many consequences of the ongoing pandemic — we believe the bill would have negative environmental consequences for the Commonwealth while seriously exacerbating our housing costs and affordability challenges at a moment when our economy already faces a sharp downturn in productivity.”
The coalition, which includes the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce, Mass. Business Roundtable, and Associated Industries of Massachusetts, has recently grown to now include the Home Builders and Remodelers Association of Massachusetts, NAIOP Massachusetts, and Plumbers & Gasfitters Local 12 Boston.
“Ultimately, we believe this bill would harm consumers and businesses and undermine our smart growth objectives at a time our economy can least afford even the smallest step backwards â€“ without making the meaningful emissions reductions we need to reverse the effects of climate change,” the coalition wrote.
The group disagrees with the Senate’s decision to leave critical specifics of carbon pricing up to the executive branch, claims the Senate bill makes unrealistic assumptions about the future costs and availability of clean energy technologies, and disapproves of the Senate leaving business, employer and labor groups off of a Climate Policy Commission proposed in a Senate bill.
On that last point, the coalition was backed up Thursday by Jay Ash, the former Baker administration economic development secretary who now leads the the Massachusetts Competitive Partnership.
“The absence of business, employer & labor reps on the Climate Commission proposed by Bill S2500 is a missed opportunity. If S2500 is to be successful, then we must be at the table, too! Many of us have been active & continue to lead on the possibilities,” Ash tweeted Thursday.
On Thursday night, Pacheco began circulating a “dear colleague” letter asking senators and representatives to sign onto a statement by Wednesday affirming their commitment to getting a meaningful climate bill — not necessarily exactly what the Senate passed — done by the end of next month.
“The unprecedented effects of COVID-19 have made our commitment to the passage of climate legislation all the more critical. Our ability to address daunting financial obstacles and ensure equitable public health in disenfranchised communities depends on the passage of bold climate action policy,” Pacheco wrote in the statement. “Yet, we continue to fail to protect our public health from greenhouse gas emissions and fail to seize upon major economic opportunities that could be achieved if we act now.”
The statement adds, “The sustainability revolution is at our doorstep. Independence from fossil fuel addiction is within our grasp. All we need is to demonstrate the political will to act.”
The committee Pacheco chairs, the Senate Committee on Global Warming and Climate Change, will hold a virtual hearing on Wednesday to “provide an opportunity for climate experts and public officials to testify publicly about the need for bold climate action,” the chairman said.
Though there had been talk months ago about the House and Senate agreeing to hold formal sessions after the traditional July 31 end date stipulated in the joint rules, that possibility seems to have lost favor and lawmakers have repeatedly discussed July 31 as the hard deadline for major legislation.
With the clock running down, the Legislature must still put a permanent budget in place for the fiscal year that starts July 1 (a process that typically takes months on Beacon Hill), momentum is building around an economic development bill that could respond to the financial pain the pandemic has inflicted, and other major initiatives around transportation revenue and health care remain under active consideration.