Massachusetts lawmakers to debate solar, public records bills before break
BOSTON >> Two major bills are expected to come up for debate and a vote before Beacon Hill lawmakers end their formal sessions for the year.
That means supporters of many other bills will have to wait until 2016 — the second year of the Legislature's two-year session — to see if their proposals make it through both chambers and onto Gov. Charlie Baker's desk.
Massachusetts Speaker Robert DeLeo says one of the bills he expects to pass in the House is aimed at overhauling the state's public records law.
The bill is designed to update the law to reflect advances in technology, have fees for obtaining public record reflect actual costs, and provide attorneys' fees when agencies unlawfully block access to public information.
Both supporters and critics are waiting to see the final House language of the bill.
Backers of the overhaul — led by a coalition of public watchdog groups, civil rights advocates and Massachusetts newspaper publishers — say serious changes are needed. They, and others, have long complained that the state's public records law is outdated and cumbersome, often forcing document seekers to endure long waits and to pay exorbitant fees for access to records.
Other groups say that while changes are needed, they're concerned that the bill may go too far. They include the Massachusetts Municipal Association, which has described portions of the bill as an unfunded mandate and said some smaller cities and towns want to make sure they have more flexible deadlines in responding to requests.
The Senate hasn't debated a public records bill this session and is waiting to see what emerges from the House.
DeLeo expects the House to also debate and vote on a bill that would raise caps on the state's "net metering" program that allows homeowners, businesses and local governments to sell excess solar power they generate back to the electrical grid in exchange for credit.
A bill that would make it a crime to fake military service for financial gain is also expected to be approved by the Senate this week. The bill, known as the Stolen Valor Act, has already been approved by the House.
The Senate already passed their version of a net metering bill.
Baker has also filed two renewable energy bills, one of which would also raise existing net metering caps. Another would require Massachusetts utilities to work with the state Department of Energy Resources to pursue long-term contracts for bringing hydropower into the state.
Many other bills may likely be held until next year, including Baker's opioid abuse legislation.
That bill — which would restrict patients to an initial three-day supply of painkillers the first time they are prescribed an opioid drug and let doctors commit a person involuntarily to a drug treatment facility for up to 72 hours if they're considered an immediate danger to themselves or others — is up for a public hearing Monday.
Another bill which faces a steep climb this year would extend non-discrimination protections to transgender people in public spaces in Massachusetts.
This week seven members of the state's congressional delegation, led by Democratic U.S. Rep. Joe Kennedy, sent letters to House Speaker Robert DeLeo and Senate President Stan Rosenberg urging them to pass the protections before breaking for the year.
Rosenberg supports the changes. Gov. Charlie Baker has said he doesn't want anyone discriminated against, but has concerns about moving beyond a 2011 Massachusetts law that already bans discrimination against transgender people in the workplace and in housing but didn't include the public accommodations portion.
Getting a bill passed into law isn't easy.
It requires both chambers to pass the same version of a bill before sending it to the governor. That can mean sending the House and Senate versions of a bill to a six-member conference committee to hammer out a single compromise version, which then must be approved by both chambers.
Once lawmakers return in January, they have just seven months to pass any major pieces of legislation before breaking for formal sessions at the end of July.
Any bills left over will have to begin the legislative process all over again in November 2017.
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