Baker vetoes sweeping climate change bill

Deepwater Wind's turbines stand in the water off Block Island, R.I. on Friday, Aug. 23, 2019.

BOSTON — Scuttling what looked to be a major session-ending accomplishment for the Legislature, Gov. Charlie Baker on Thursday vetoed ambitious climate legislation over his concerns that key pieces of the bill could stymie housing construction, and that the Legislature did nothing in the bill to help cities and town adapt to the effects of climate change.

Baker said he supports much in the bill, but believes key components fly in the face of another legislative victory - the passage of his “housing choice” proposal - that he signed on Thursday night as part of a $626 million multi-year jobs bill.

The governor also urged the Legislature not to rush into another major procurement of offshore wind power as Massachusetts continues the “massive undertaking” of working with other northeastern states to change the ways clean energy is purchased.

The veto sets up an early confrontation in the new year between the governor and the Legislature, where Democratic leaders have signaled a lack of willingness to budge on a bill that was negotiated over the past five months and overwhelmingly approved by the last Legislature. If lawmakers pass the same bill or a similar one in the new session, Baker would be able to offer amendments, an avenue largely closed off with this bill.

The lead Senate negotiator of the bill, Sen. Michael Barrett, said he was “deeply disappointed” by the governor’s action, which he described as “really about politics, not policy.”

“I’m not persuaded,” Barrett said, after reading Baker’s veto letter.

The bill would have locked the state into a goal of becoming carbon neutral by 2050, with interim benchmarks for reducing carbon emissions every decade. It would have also directed utilities to purchase more offshore wind power, set efficiency standards for appliances and increased the amount of renewable sources that feed the state’s electricity supply to 40 percent by 2030.

On the surface, Baker’s energy priorities look to be in harmony with the legislation. He used his executive authority last year to set his own goal of net-zero emissions by 2050, and believes wind power will be key to reaching that goal.

He objected, however, to several components of the bill, including one piece that would have allowed municipalities to update their building codes to require new construction to be “net-zero.”

“One of my big concerns is I’ve gotten a lot of incoming from a lot of folks who are in the building and home construction business who have said that certain pieces of this bill, which remember I can’t amend and send back, literally may just stop in its tracks any housing development in the commonwealth and those words get my attention,” Baker said at a press conference on small business relief Thursday in Boston.

He also criticized the Legislature for not providing any resources for municipalities, including economically and environmentally disadvantaged communities, to adapt to climate change. The governor proposed this session to raise more than $130 million a year for climate adaptation projects by raising real estate transfer taxes.

The veto came just a day after House Speaker Ronald Mariano and Senate President Karen Spilka pledged that if the governor vetoed the bill, it would be refiled unchanged and passed again in the coming days.

“Climate change is the greatest existential threat facing our state, our nation, and our planet, and so Governor Baker should sign the climate change bill that is now on his desk. Should he not take this important step, the Senate and House are united in our intention to refile and pass the conference committee bill in its entirety and get it onto the Governor’s desk in the coming days,” Mariano and Spilka said.

The two Democratic leaders made that commitment hoping to convince Baker to sign the bill, but may have made it easier for him to veto the bill knowing that legislative leaders were determined to take it up again quickly in the new session. Baker said if had more than 35 hours at the end of the session to review the bill he would have offered amendments, but now hopes to work with lawmakers quickly to find common ground.

“What that says to me is that the House and Senate wold like to get, quote, a significant bill done on this issue. So would we. So from my point of view, that’s a positive,” Baker said.

In a separate bill, the governor on Thursday signed an exclusionary zoning reform that he has fought for years to get done and that he believes will make it easier for cities and towns to approve housing development.

The provision of the jobs bill would reduce the threshold to change local zoning bylaws from two-thirds of the government board to a simple majority, making it easier for officials to approve developments. Baker believes this will help bring relief to a housing market plagued by high prices and low inventory.

“We’ve got to build more housing that’s less expensive, not less housing that’s more expensive, and that issue in particularly really rings true for me,” Baker said.

Groups like the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce and NAIOP, which represents the real estate development industry, pushed Baker to veto the climate bill because they said it would have made construction of new homes cost prohibitive to developers by allowing cities and towns to adopt a net-zero “stretch energy code.”

Sen. Barrett, who helped write and negotiate the final bill with the House, said legislators had actually worked with the housing construction industry to ensure that there would be a lot of flexibility in the law.

“There is no grounds for the governor feeling activity of any kind is going to stop development in its tracks. His people can read. I am totally puzzled by this latest development,” Barrett said.

The Lexington Democrat pointed to a section of the bill that he said gave the administration the ability to build in exemptions, as well as control some of the timing of the adoption of the new building codes. He said cities and towns would be able to incorporate additional exemptions.

“By design we want to tighten up energy efficiency in buildings without squelching construction. That’s the balance we’ve struck,” he said.

Baker, however, said he heard from the construction industry that it could slow or stop development in some communities. The governor said he supports developing an energy building code that doesn’t negatively impact the development of affordable housing.

The governor also opposed an interim emission reduction target that would have been set by the bill requiring Massachusetts to reduce emissions by 50 percent below 1990 levels by 2030.

The governor’s own plan calls for a 45 percent reduction by the end of the decade, and the administration worries that anything more aggressive would be costly and disruptive to the economy. He said the 5 percent difference in the two approaches would cost residents an extra $6 billion. With the Legislature not in session again until Tuesday, the House set up several temporary committees on Thursday and Mariano said he intended to refile the original climate bill immediately if Baker vetoed it.

That could put the House and Senate on a path to take votes as soon as next week, if everyone follows through.

Environmental groups worried this week that a veto of the climate bill might send a bad message to other states who were watching Massachusetts closely. The bill would have given the state the most ambitious carbon emission reduction timeline in the country.

“In a year of unprecedented strain on low-income Massachusetts residents and communities of color, it’s beyond disappointing that Governor Baker chose to side with big business, fossil fuel interests, and real estate lobbyists over the needs of vulnerable residents,” said Jacob Stern, Massachusetts chapter deputy director for the Sierra Club. “The Governor’s decision represents a massive missed opportunity to invest in future generations by reducing carbon pollution, enacting stronger building standards, and codifying protections for environmental justice communities. So much for Mr. Climate Action.”

Some groups, however, saw opportunity in the restart on climate talks. The New England Power Generators Association had concerns with the legislation directing utilities to purchase an additional 2,400 megawatts of offshore wind power.

“Now is an opportunity to revisit a bill passed in the waning hours of an unprecedented legislative session,” said Dan Dolan, president of NEPGA. “To most efficiently drive carbon reductions, the legislature should enact a meaningful, multi-sector price on carbon emissions. This focus on the actual cause of climate change can create a sustainable, and durable marketplace to meet our climate responsibilities.”

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