Slow Formal Session Ends: Berkshire Reps Expect Busy 2016
By Andy McKeever
06:48AM / Sunday, November 29, 2015
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.