Governor vetoes omnibus climate, emissions reduction bill

Scuttling what looked to be a major session-ending accomplishment for the Legislature, Gov. Baker last week 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 legislators. 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.” After reading Baker’s veto message, he added: “I’m not persuaded.”

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 gatherr more than $130 million a year for climate adaptation projects by raising real estate transfer taxes.

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.”

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.

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

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.