Some big bills don't survive Beacon Hill session, but cultural council funding veto override makes it out alive
BOSTON >> House and Senate lawmakers overrode one of Gov. Charlie Baker's least popular budget vetoes on Sunday, restoring $7.77 million in funding for arts programs around the state.
A total of 106 representatives and 21 senators earlier signed a letter urging an override of the veto, which if it stood would "cut many of our core grant programs to the bone and likely force us to eliminate some programs entirely," according to Massachusetts Cultural Council Executive Director Anita Walker.
A scattering of applause rose from the House chamber after the 156-2 override vote. Republican Reps. Marc Lombardo and James Lyons voted to sustain the governor's veto — Baker slashed a total of $256 million with vetoes, saying the Legislature's budget failed to fund other "known deficiencies."
Lyons and Lombardo joined their colleagues in a unanimous vote immediately after the cultural council override, restoring $1.7 million the governor cut for substance abuse treatment. The Senate overrode the veto 38-0 around 9 p.m. on Sunday.
The restoration of state spending carved out by the governor follows back-to-back years when budget bills drafted by legislative leaders failed to hold up, requiring midyear fixes.
On Sunday, the last day the joint rules permit them to conduct formal business, the House and Senate plowed through veto overrides, mandating spending over the governor's objections.
With hours remaining on the clock in the formal 2015-2016 legislative session, Massachusetts lawmakers struggled Sunday to reach final accords on several major bills that had been the focus of discussion for months on Beacon Hill.
The Legislature approved a wide-ranging bill designed to help cities and towns govern local affairs more efficiently and cope with ever-increasing budget pressures. But closed-door talks dragged on as the House and Senate worked to resolve differences holding up final passage of other key measures, though a compromise was reached on an energy bill that would incorporate more renewables into the state's energy portfolio.
Negotiations over a more than $700 million economic development plan also inched forward after apparently bogging down over a Senate proposal to apply the state's hotel and motel tax to lodging services such as Airbnb and vacation rentals.
By rule, the Legislature must by midnight Sunday end formal meetings for the session that began in January of last year. House Speaker Robert DeLeo, speaking to reporters after a Democratic caucus earlier in the day, said he would not consider waiving the rule and extending the session beyond the deadline.
DeLeo said it was not surprising to see negotiations continue until the final hours.
"People try to wait until the bitter end," said DeLeo, responding to criticism that last-minute deals would afford rank-and-file lawmakers, not to mention the general public, little or no time to review or comment on the final details before they were voted into law.
An avid baseball fan, DeLeo compared the process to major league teams waiting for the trade deadline — also Sunday — to pull off transactions.
Democratic Senate President Stan Rosenberg suggested on Saturday that the House had been slow in advancing certain bills, leading to the frenetic last-minute negotiations. DeLeo disagreed.
"I think if we started this two months ago we would still be here today," he said.
House and Senate negotiators have finalized an energy bill that will require utilities to procure large quantities of hydro-electric and offshore wind power to meet the state's energy demand in the coming years, but liberal factions of the Senate are upset with the compromise and threatening to vote against the deal.
The final compromise was signed by five of the six conferees, with Sen. Marc Pacheco of Taunton withholding his support. The conference report (H 4568) was filed with House clerks at 9:30 p.m.
Rep. Thomas Golden of Lowell, the co-chair of the Energy Committee, said the bill was more than just a procurement of large-scale hydro and wind power, pointing to sections that also encourage small hydro with dams and energy storage.
"This should be a celebration," Golden said. "This is the beginning to having a greener energy future for the commonwealth."
The bill, according to Sen. Benjamin Downing, calls for the procurement of 1,600 megawatts of both offshore wind and hydropower that would likely be imported from Canada or upstate New York.
Downing said the bill also contains language promoting gas leak repairs and the development of energy storage technology, but it does not include Senate language increasing the Renewable Energy Portfolio Standard (RPS), which requires utilities to obtain a minimum amount of their electricity from renewable sources like solar and wind.
The Senate had proposed to double the current rate of growth in the RPS standard from 1 percent a year to 2 percent a year, but the section was dropped from the final compromise.
The conference committee also dropped Senate-backed language that would have banned utilities from seeking rate increases from customers to front the cost of building new natural gas pipelines. The omission, according to sources, has contributed to the anger and frustration among some members of the Senate who oppose the expansion of natural gas and sought the protections for consumers.
In the hours since the News Service first reported a deal and details began to trickle out, Senate leaders have been working behind the scenes to sooth the discontent over the final compromise, which is being viewed by some as short of comprehensive energy bill that had been promised earlier in the session.
"There's definitely going to be an energy bill next year," said one senior ranking Senate official, who acknowledged that senators were being asked to put aside their disappointment in order to get something done before the midnight deadline.
Many senators, including Downing, had hoped to see the Legislature go further this session to promote energy efficiency and other strategies that they view as critical to meeting demand and the state's clean energy and carbon emission reduction mandates.
The conference committee also adopted the House's preferred language that would exclude the long-fought, controversial Cape Wind project in Nantucket Sound from bidding for the long-term offshore wind contracts.
The energy and economic developments bills were among six that were identified earlier in the month by Democratic leaders and Republican Gov. Charlie Baker as priorities in the closing weeks of the session.
Only one of the six, a measure requiring pay equity for men and women in the workplace, had been sent to Baker's desk prior to Sunday.
The municipal modernization bill would eliminate what many local officials viewed as outdated state rules and provide cities and towns with more autonomy from the state.
"What is at stake here is making the job of our local officials easier," said Sen. Barbara L'Italien, an Andover Democrat who led negotiations on the bill. "We want to bring things up to the 21st century and reflect current practice."
Left out of the final bill was a provision sought by municipal officials, including Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, that would give cities and towns more flexibility in issuing liquor licenses.
Negotiations continued on the two other "big six" bills, one that would allow the state to regulate popular ride-hailing services such as Uber and Lyft, the other restricting non-compete clauses in private employment contracts that critics contend stifle innovation.
Most bills that are not passed by the deadline would have to be re-filed for the next two-year session beginning in January. Lawmakers can meet informally through the end of the year and pass non-controversial bills, if no members object.
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