An Act amending the statutory responsibilities of the Department of Public Utilities and establishing a commission on transportation safety oversight and regulation (SD. 2378)

  • A mass transit system that isn’t safe fails the most basic compact it has with its public.  Riders feel they use the T at their peril, for which the Federal Transit Administration indicts the DPU, the state body currently responsible for overseeing safety on the system.  The feds write that the agency “has not used its authority to ensure the identification and resolution of safety issues at the MBTA.”
  • The situation calls for decisive change.  To serve as official monitor of system safety, the bill removes the DPU in favor of a new, independent agency — the Commission on Transportation Oversight and Regulation.  The T will be the focus, but the Commission will take over the DPU’s other transportation-related functions, as well.
  • Crucial added benefit: The DPU is freed up to concentrate on its primary responsibility, climate change and energy policy.

An Act to establish a clean heating initiative in the commonwealth and reorganize the energy efficiency programs known as Mass Save (SD. 2346)

  • Massachusetts’ biggest operation by far to reduce emissions from buildings, Mass Save, has no visible leadership.  Current law calls for no chief executive officer, no board of directors — no one accountable to the Legislature and the public.  What the law on Mass Save does do is give the state’s natural gas companies the major role in helping households and businesses transition away from natural gas, a conflict of interest that has to end.
  • This bill gives Mass Save a new name, the Commonwealth Clean Heating Initiative, and a new governance structure, headed by a Board of Directors and CEO.  The utilities will still have a seat at the table, but not at the head of the table.
  • To take pressure off electric bills, presently the principal source of funding for energy efficiency programs of all kinds, the bill stipulates that gas energy efficiency programs must be financed through an energy efficiency charge on gas bills.
  • To scope the possible duties and finances of a Building Decarbonization Clearinghouse, as recommended by the Commission on Clean Heat, the bill directs the Department of Energy Resources to conduct an analysis of all “programs, investment plans, projects, initiatives, and funding sources offered by state government, federal government, local government, and for-profit and not-for-profit entities … [that] promote building energy efficiency and decarbonization….”  The analysis is due back to the Legislature not later than July 1, 2024.

An Act to set equal contracting conditions for electricity customers on basic service (SD. 1498)

  • Electric bills have gone up for everyone.  But they’ve gone up much more for our constituents on the “basic service” plans of Eversource, National Grid, and Unitil than they have for everybody else.  These constituents have been hit hard and, for many of them, a “municipal aggregation” alternative is not available.
  • How can this be?  The experts we consulted point to a section of state law as the singular source of disadvantage for people on basic service.  Cities and towns that do municipal aggregation are free to negotiate fixed rates with power generating companies for any period up to three years; they go long or short, depending on market conditions.  Having negotiated multi-year arrangements a year or two ago, their customers are riding out today’s inflation at decent fixed rates.
  • In contrast, the statute in question limits the utilities to negotiating contracts with generators for periods of no longer than six months.  The lack of flexibility means that, just recently, the utilities had to go out for new pricing in the middle of inflationary bombogenesis.  Their customers are getting whacked.
  • This bill will not hurt municipal aggregation programs, which we strongly support.  They will be able to operate as they have in the past.  What this bill will do is inject fair competition into a situation marred at the moment by a thumb on the scale.

An Act to establish home energy efficiency ratings (SD. 1485)

  • People who make energy efficiency investments in their homes increase the value of the property but have no ready way to make the increase evident to would-be buyers.
  • This bill provides a solution, so that property owners can recoup some of their investment when they go to sell.  It directs DOER to develop and implement a municipal opt-in energy performance rating program, built on three pillars: the conduct of an energy assessment on a property intended for sale, the subsequent calculation of an energy performance rating, and the sharing of the rating with buyers or prospective buyers, and with tenants or prospective tenants, before the sale or lease of a residential dwelling unit.

An Act to expand carbon pricing in the commonwealth (SD. 2273)

  • The basic idea behind carbon pricing is that fossil fuel prices should reflect their costs, including the “downstream” health and climate costs.  Today, when we buy natural gas to heat the house or gasoline to power the car, the health and climate consequences — air pollution, drought, flood, fire and unbearable heat — are decoupled from their triggers.  We consume now and confront the finances later, when our insurance premiums go to care for the sick and our taxes go to cleaning up after weather events.  “Socializing” costs in this way tempts us to miss the connections between cause and effect, which weakens our motivation to change and to innovate.
  • The legislation proposes to reflect health and climate costs upfront, in the price we pay, so that we can consider them before buying.  People are economic animals; when we’re presented with forking over more money for something, we seek out alternatives.
  • The bill also protects people from today’s high inflation, by phasing in over time.  It directs the EEA Secretary to put a price on fuels that produce emissions from industrial and commercial heating by 2026; from industrial processes by 2027; from transportation by 2028; and from residential buildings by 2029.
  • The legislation allows for flexibility.  It establishes minimums graduated on a year-by-year basis  but doesn’t specify the exact amount of the charge.  Nor does it determine whether the mechanism is “revenue positive” (the money goes into the state treasury for general government operations) or “revenue neutral” (after entering into the pricing of the fossil fuel and giving the consumer the heads-up on true cost, the money gets rebated back to residents on an easy-to-calculate per capita basis).
  • The bill centers equity.  A revenue-neutral carbon fee (the approach I favor) would deliver more in rebates to low-income people than they pay in upfront charges.  Prosperous people would get less back than they pay; they consume disproportionate amounts of fuel, so they would pay more in fees, too.

An Act relative to the Massachusetts fund for vulnerable countries most affected by climate change (SD. 1418)

  • This first-in-the-nation legislation gives Massachusetts residents the option, when filing their state income taxes, to contribute to a special United Nations fund set up some years ago to help developing countries deal with global warming.  The MA income tax form already features six “tax check-off” options, all for good causes in Massachusetts.  This bill adds a climate-conscious option, the first, and an option that reaches beyond the state, also a first.
  • Vulnerable countries designated by the UN for assistance from the fund include Haiti, Nepal, Cambodia, and Afghanistan.  Today the fund’s resources come from developed countries and philanthropic sources.  Massachusetts can blaze a path that other states will follow.
  • Like its six predecessors, the fund would be a pass-through accounting mechanism that imposes essentially no administrative cost on state government.

An Act establishing a Climate Policy Commission (SD. 2293)

  • Data lags and data gaps plague our pursuit of climate solutions.  Some of the lags and gaps are unavoidable, but recent governors have exaggerated the difficulties in order to hide underperformance from legislative committees and the public.
  • This bill sets up an independent watchdog, the Climate Policy Commission, to facilitate information flows.  Commissioners are charged with offering a rigorous, nonpartisan, science-based view of the problem as it plays out in Massachusetts, with its attendant natural, economic, and human impacts.
  • Job one for the Commission is to keep us informed, in-between the five-year reports and plans required by state law, about the developing crisis.  Job two is to tell us whether we’re on track to address it by meeting our emissions limits and sublimits.
  • The bill directs the Commission to pay special attention throughout to the implications for, and risks to, underserved communities, the different regions of the commonwealth, communities with a high percentage of low-income households, and gateway municipalities as defined in section 3A of chapter 23A of the General Laws, and to review past actions taken to mitigate the effects of climate on low-income and moderate-income persons.

To see a full list of Sen. Barrett’s bills, click here.