Looking for Legislative Drama? Forget Health Care Reform, Focus on Section 42

Friday, July 20, 2012

In just over 10 days, the Massachusetts legislature will have to adjourn for the year.  The State House will remain open, and informal House and Senate sessions will be held every week until the end of December, during which only non-controversial legislation may be taken up. Work on all major legislative issues will have to cease, by law, at midnight on Tuesday, July 31.

As is usually the case at this point in the two-year session cycle, the legislature has a huge backlog of pending legislation and a tiny window of time in which to address it. Much work remains to be done, by all accounts, on several pressing, major bills.

Perhaps the most prominent and complex matter the legislature now faces is health care payment reform and cost control, a bill that will have far-reaching impact on the state’s health care industry, all in the name of preserving our unique system of universal health coverage. 

Not far behind are significant bills in the areas of transportation system funding, economic development, penalties on utilities for storm-related power outages, siting of land-based wind energy projects, and a casino compact for the Wampanoag Indians in southeastern Massachusetts, to name just a few.

If you’re looking for the most fascinating issue that will play out over the next week and a half, however, look to none of the above.  Direct your attention, instead, to Section 42 of House Bill 4225, An Act Relative to Competitively Priced Electricity in the Commonwealth.

HB 4225 aims to foster continued growth in the generation of electricity from renewable sources and to blunt the factors that drive up electricity costs.  Section 42, authored by Rep. John Keenan, D-Salem, would facilitate the redevelopment of coal-fired power plants as natural-gas-fired plants. 

It would accomplish that by requiring power distribution companies – and, by extension, consumers -- to purchase electricity from these redeveloped sites for periods of at least 15 years.  In other words, it would give the redevelopers a legal, financial advantage as an incentive to replace dirty coal with cleaner-burning gas, thereby benefiting the environment.

There are only three coal-fired plants left in Massachusetts: the Salem Harbor Station in Salem, Mt. Tom in Holyoke, and Brayton Point in Somerset.  But there is an active proposal to replace only one of those with a gas-fired facility: Salem Harbor Station.

Dominion Power, owner of Salem Harbor Station and the largest single property taxpayer in the city, is planning to close the plant in 2014, and to unload the property for the best deal it can get.  Everyone serving in Salem’s government is concerned about replacing those big Dominion tax dollars.  Power plants, by their very nature, are rich sources of property tax revenue. 

So up steps the straight-shooting, very savvy Rep. Keenan. 

As the House chairman of the Joint Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy, Keenan had a unique opportunity to help a developer help his community, and he took it.  Who would not have done the same in that position?

Section 42 set off what the pundits like to call a firestorm of opposition.  The New England Power Generators Association (NEPGA) placed full-page ads in the Boston papers complaining that Section 42, if adopted, “will cost consumers billions of dollars for potentially uneconomic, unnecessary power plants and hurt Massachusetts’ clean energy policy.”   Those ads exhorted readers to tell their local legislators “you want Section 42 removed from HB 4225.”  

A coalition of business, consumer and environmental groups issued a press release saying it wanted to demonstrate “vehement opposition” to Section 42.  Dan Allegretti, regional chairman of the Retail Energy Supply Association (RESA), was quoted as saying, “RESA and its members are deeply concerned that this measure will adversely impact the value of customer choice for businesses and consumers across the Commonwealth.”

At the same time, Senate Majority Leader Fred Berry, D-Peabody, whose district includes Salem, weighed in with a letter to the editor saying he fully supported Section 42. “…I applaud Chairman Keenan for his foresight in drafting this section to the House’s version of the energy bill,” Berry wrote.  “Although the language of Section 42 did not appear in the Senate’s version of the bill, I am strongly advocating for its inclusion in the final version that will emerge from the legislature.”

The differences between the House and Senate versions of An Act Relative to Competitively Priced Electricity in the Commonwealth are now being worked out by a six-member conference committee. Everyone is wondering what House Speaker Robert DeLeo and Senate President Therese Murray are saying to their respective conferees about Section 42 now that it’s blown up into a big, media-magnetic controversy.

Fred Berry is not only the longest serving member of the Senate, but probably also the single most beloved and admired legislator on the Hill.  Will President Murray be able to say no to him, especially since he’s retiring from the Senate when his term expires in December and is no doubt appealing for one big, last favor for his district?  And will Speaker DeLeo want to buck one of his key committee chairmen, a member of his leadership team, on a matter near and dear to that chairman’s heart?  (It’s kind of hard to imagine that Chairman Keenan put Section 42 into HB 4225 without first running it by the Speaker.)  

If Section 42 survives the conference committee, and if HB 4225 is endorsed in the subsequent re-votes in the House and Senate, will Governor Deval Patrick veto that one section when it gets to his desk? 

If he does veto Section 42, it will probably be game over.

By the time a Section 42-inclusive HB 4225 gets to the governor, there will be fewer than 10 days left on the legislative calendar.  The governor has up to 10 days to sign or veto something.  If the governor vetoed Section 42 on the tenth day and sent it back to the legislature, the legislature would no longer be in session and would not have the ability to convene and vote to override the governor’s veto. 

At that point, Section 42 would be dead.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

thanks for sharing.

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