At the end of their 2015 session, the House passed reforms to the state’s public records law that, as chief author Rep. Peter Kocot said, “brings us into the 21st Century.”
Even though sometimes the Commonwealth is slow to admit it, we are in fact almost 15 years into that century. But those public records laws haven’t been updated in far longer, dating back to the 1970s.
Kocot’s bill, which passed unanimously and with little debate, tightens up required response times for municipalities and agencies to respond to public records requests, and it gives some teeth to the attorney general to go after government functionaries who flout the law by refusing to give up the goods when it comes to public records.
The bill, Kocot said, will “allow courts to award damages to that person when an agency or municipality acts maliciously or in bad faith.”
The bill was initially resisted by cities and towns, who argued that they would incur new costs for having to research and produce records at the pace and cost they couldn’t afford. After the changes to the bill over the course of the year, towns signed on, and the dawn of the 21st Century is one step closer for government in Massachusetts.
An amendment to apply the open meetings provisions to the legislature was quashed.
The public records proposal now goes to the Senate, where the upper chamber will take it up when they return next year.
State lawmakers also failed to come to an agreement on an increase in how much solar energy is available on the state’s electrical grid, and how much to compensate supplies for the cleaner — but usually pricier — energy.
The Legislature had found itself for over a year in the middle of closed-door negotiations with solar installers and clean energy advocates on one side, and cost-conscious business and utility interests on the other. At issue is how much privately and publicly generated solar power is allowed for sale back onto the retail energy grid.
In order for expensive investments in solar production to pay off in the long term, installers want higher energy prices for suppliers when they sell power to the grid. Talk to a solar panel installer or clean-energy type and they’ll tell you that higher solar power costs are the only way to get people to invest in solar, thus making it easier to reach the state’s clean-energy production goals.
Utility operators don’t want to have to pay the higher costs for solar energy, and argue that increasing the cost of solar power will disrupt the market and raise energy rates for all ratepayers. Other business interests don’t like the idea of higher electricity bills either, and have joined the opposition to a big boost for solar.
“We feel this is a very balanced approach and it’s an opportunity to increase solar in the Commonwealth,” Rep. Thomas Golden, the House’s energy committee chairman, told his colleagues when the bill came up for debate on the penultimate day of formal sessions before lawmakers break for the year.
Solar installers and environmentalists objected to the bill that passed the House Tuesday, saying it doesn’t go nearly far enough to foster the growing solar industry. the more green-minded Senate then passed their own legislation that the solar industry was at least slightly warmer to.
The two versions will get hashed into a compromise version behind closed doors while advocates on both sides hold their breath. House and Senate leaders on the issue failed to come to an agreement to reconcile the two bills Wednesday night, leaving it to be done next year when both branches expect to revisit the solar issue in another energy bill.
Also on the docket for next year is action on the controversial social issue of transgender access to public accommodations. A bill which would codify protections for transgender people from discrimination when accessing public areas like lockers rooms, restaurants, transportation, public bathrooms and more has gained support on the hill since the provision was left out a 2013 trans rights bill.
Conservatives in the Legislature fear access for transgender people to areas traditionally restricted to one gender would come at the expense of privacy for other parties.
Speaker Robert DeLeo supports the bill, but is letting his members work it out for themselves.
“They need more time to get to a place where they feel comfortable,” DeLeo told reporters Wednesday, according to the State house News Service.