End of Session Review: Benjamin Downing
Senator Downing at the governor's signing of the energy diversity bill earlier this month in Boston.
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — State Sen. Benjamin Downing is happy with the state's new energy bill but feels it doesn't go far enough.
Just before the July 31 end of the formal legislative session, the state passed an omnibus energy bill which increases hydro-electricity, off-shore wind, and raises the net metering cap for solar, among the many provisions.
Downing headed the state's Telecommunication, Utilities, and Energy Committee and spent a lot of time during the two-year session on it. He filed a bill that was aimed to significantly boost the state's renewable energy portfolio as well as raise the net metering cap further, but ultimately the compromise reached was less than he had hoped.
"This session we went back again at the energy side with an eye toward climate and cost, make sure are doing things in the most cost effective way and making sure we were on track to hitting our climate goals, our requirements," Downing said.
"We had a significant and lengthy debate on solar. From my perspective, the solution we came up with was not a long-term one. We came up with a solution that ensures the next Legislature will have to deal with the net meter caps again. This isn't just a Massachusetts issue but we have been particularly messy in how we've handled the situation. I would like to think we could have come up with a better, longer term solution."
The energy bill, however, does a lot to boost the state's green energy. Downing said while the "bill isn't everything everyone would have wanted, it takes a significant step forward in helping us hit our climate change goals."
"It is just not enough to just be opposed to something. You have to put forward the solution. I think the two debates we have around energy policy is around climate and around cost. I come from the perspective that you need to come up with policy that addresses both. I think bringing on a good amount of hydro, balanced with other renewables, along with opening up a new market in off-shore wind and storage is the right mix to do exactly that," Downing said.
Downing said Gov. Charlie Baker's administration had more of a focus on costs of energy while the former Gov. Deval Patrick focused on the climate side of the debate.
"Both want to do the right thing, I just think it is a different focus. That certainly changes the dynamic when you are negotiating with your colleagues in the House because the administration is going to weigh in on both sides to make their priorities known," Downing said. "I think it is fair to say the Senate wanted to be more comprehensive and aggressive in the steps we took, especially on the climate focus. But, everything is a compromise. We were unable to get an increase in the renewable portfolio standard in this legislation."
Another bill Downing says is a highlight of the session is a transgender and equal rights bill, which paves the way for some 33,000 people in Massachusetts to avoid discrimination. The bill includes provisions Downing had sought back in 2010 to protect transgender individuals from being denied access to public accommodations.
"Unfortunately the debate publicly is about bathrooms. But when you talk about public accommodations, that's why the freedom riders chose buses when they were going in the South. That was a public accommodation. A sidewalk is a public accommodation," Downing said.
"This protection was a critical final piece to making sure we say loudly and proudly that everyone is welcome in Massachusetts."
As a more senior member of the Ways and Means Committee, Downing said he took a large role in budget negotiations.
"We have two forces that are driving our budget challenges. One is our legacy of decisions made in the '90s, which are significant tax cuts at a time when we could afford them and now it is fair to say we can't. And the rising cost of health care. While we've started to see the increases in the cost of health care come down, there is a lot more work to be done. If health care is growing faster than other parts of the budget and it is already 40 percent of the budget, that crowds our every other investment that we'd like to make," Downing said.
Downing is particularly happy with the state's ability to raise the earned income tax credit. He had pushed to double it but eliminating the automatic decreases in the state's income tax. While he wasn't able to get the income tax provision eliminated, he said some corporate tax breaks to fund a partial raise to the credit.
"You are talking about statewide 400,000 income tax filers who are going to benefit from that. If you look at the Berkshires, the poverty rate is higher than the state rate. If you look at Pittsfield, North Adams, and Adams that's true in particular. This is an area where we've gone through real economic challenges and that is one way we will see significant benefits. People who are working hard and playing by the rules but may not have gotten a raise for one reason or another will see that direct benefit," Downing said.
Long term, Downing says the state needs to do more with reducing the cost of health care and revisit the tax structure to create a more fair system and will raise revenues for the state.
Downing also voiced concern for the future of the transportation infrastructure and said he'd like to have a new dedicated revenue to fund projects throughout the state because right now, the revenues aren't enough to keep up with the needs.
"The administration came in at a time where the MBTA was in freefall during that horrible storm and that horrible winter. I am concerned that that has led to an almost over focus on the MBTA. That's always a concern out here but I do worry that there is an imbalance in transportation investment in and around the Boston area. Quite frankly, they need it but we need it, too. I don't think the solution to a massive transportation deficit is to plug one hole and ignore another," Downing said.
Pittsfield is a gateway city and Downing worked on the Gateway Cities Caucus through which he advocated and received funding to launch the Transformative Development Initiative. He said his work also included looking at policies that will help areas like North Adams that aren't classified as gateways but have the same struggles.
The state also passed a bill to address the growing opioid epidemic which Downing said shows that the state is taking the issue seriously and providing tools to address it. But, he says he'd like to see insurers be required to pay for a full month's of treatment instead of just two weeks.
"It takes at least 21 days for someone to detox and see the benefits of treatment so there is still more work to be done there as well," Downing said.
A project Downing has had for the last decade in office is broadband. While he is frustrated that a decade of work hasn't been completed, he is confident in the future.
"I think the MBI has clear direction from the Baker administration, which is something they didn't have last year. I think the MBI could have moved forward absent that but I think they were being conservative," Downing said. "They have that now from the governor and his team, they have clearly said go out and get this project done, work with the cities and towns, have clear timeliness and clear direction. I think there is still going to be some back and forth on the regional effort, with WiredWest. But I am committed to working with the delegation to make sure that if a group of our towns want to do it in the form of a regional co-op, then we will make it work."
This session was the only one Downing had under a new administration. He credits the Republican administration for keeping open lines of communication with the Democratic Legislature.
"It's been a bit of a feeling out process. I give Gov. Baker credit for having an open line of communication with the Legislature. Most of my dealings with the administration have been with Secretary Matthew Beaton at the Energy and Environmental Affairs and I've found any time I have an issue or challenge, I can turn to them and they will give an answer really quick. It may not always be the answer I want but I give the administration credit for that. They want to keep those lines of communication open and I think that is critical," he said.
Downing also highlighted the Municipal Modernization Bill
, which eliminates a number of outdated regulations for municipalities and included a number of provisions he included. One allows those who serve in the armed forces to take the Civil Service Exam early but he was unable to get a piece in that allows cities and towns to raise revenue for transportation on their own.
His work isn't done yet. Downing said he has a prize-linked savings bill pending before the House of Representatives he hopes to finish in informal session. It will likely be his final legislative effort as he is not running for re-election; a new senator for the Berkshire, Franklin, Hampshire and Hampden district will be elected in November.
"I think it was a busy session. Certainly, a unique one for me because it was the first session with an administration different than the Patrick administration. The energy bill we got done at the end was a personal priority. We took some important steps forward, in particular, offshore wind and energy storage. I think getting the final piece done on the transgender equal rights bill was the remaining provision, public accommodations that was left out of the legislation that I filed in 2010 and we ultimately passed in that session," Downing said.