Can Massachusetts Democrats Overcome the Power of Business Lobbyists and Pass Climate Legislation?

Despite supermajorities enjoyed by the party in both houses of the state legislature, a new Brown University study suggests the answer may be no.

Protesters march from Copley Plaza to the Massachusetts State House in Boston to call for action on climate change on Dec. 6, 2019. Credit: David L. Ryan/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

Protesters march from Copley Plaza to the Massachusetts State House in Boston to call for action on climate change on Dec. 6, 2019. Credit: David L. Ryan/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

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A Republican governor in the otherwise overwhelmingly blue state of Massachusetts vetoed a wide-ranging climate bill two weeks ago that had broad public support after real estate developers objected to provisions that would allow municipalities to require “net-zero” emissions from all new building and home construction.  

Democrats, who hold supermajorities in both houses of the state Legislature, vowed to quickly send the bill back to Gov. Charlie Baker’s office, possibly as early as Thursday, with enough votes to override a second veto.  

However, a new report by researchers at Brown University shows that despite the Democrats’ power and strong interest in the state for aggressive action on climate change, the Legislature has repeatedly failed to take aggressive action due to the same lobbying from business interests that led to the governor’s recent veto.

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The report looked at more than 1,100 instances of public testimony given in legislative committees and over 4,000 lobbying visits reported to the Massachusetts Secretary of State in recent years. 

The researchers found that more than 90 percent of written and oral testimony was in favor of climate and clean energy bills, yet business interests that were opposed to the bills spent three and a half times more on lobbying than those who supported the measures.

“If you went to the hearings, you got one picture,” said Timmons Roberts, a co-author of the report and director of the climate and development lab at Brown University’s Institute for Environment and Society. “But if you look at the lobbying records, it’s quite the opposite picture.”

Of the 245 climate and clean energy bills that were introduced in Massachusetts from 2013 to 2018, only 43 made it out of their initial committees and only nine were ever voted on by the full legislature, the report found.

Environmental advocates now fear that the potential for renewed lobbying in the statehouse could delay or derail legislation they say is crucial for addressing climate change.  

The bill Baker vetoed on Jan. 14, which lawmakers were calling the Legislature’s “next-generation roadmap for Massachusetts climate policy,” was the state’s most ambitious climate legislation in more than a decade.

The bill would have required net-zero carbon emissions statewide by 2050, up from the current requirement for an 80 percent reduction over 1990 levels by mid-century. To get there, the bill included a change to building codes that would allow municipalities to require zero emissions, or “net-zero,” buildings for new construction. Any greenhouse gas emissions from homes or other buildings would have to be offset elsewhere, under the bill. 

Baker cited lobbying from real estate developers as a reason for the veto, saying he had heard “from folks who are in the building and home construction business who have said that certain pieces of this bill… literally may just stop in its tracks any housing development in the Commonwealth.”

The reasoning put forward by the governor confounded many in the state as a climate plan released by the governor on Dec. 30 included similar measures for building codes. 

In a five-page letter explaining his reasoning, Baker also noted the bill, which calls for 50 percent emissions reductions by 2030, would cost the state $6 billion more than his own proposal, which called for 45 percent emissions reductions by the end of the decade.

Legislators and environmental advocates have challenged the governor’s cost claims saying the numbers don’t add up.

Bradley Campbell, president of the Conservation Law Foundation, said Baker was “reciting some of the hackneyed, false choices about adverse impacts to the economy or having to choose between addressing climate and having a sound economy when in fact, New England’s future economy depends on addressing climate change.”  

 The bill now goes back to the Legislature where House and Senate leaders have vowed to quickly pass it and send it back to the governor’s office.  However, a detailed analysis by researchers at Brown University shows that from 2013 to 2018 the Massachusetts Legislature routinely failed to pass strong climate legislation due to business interest opposition.  

Despite the vow by Democrats in the Legislature to quickly get the bill back on Baker’s desk, former state Rep. Denise Provost said she was not surprised by the Brown findings on the lobbying strength of business interests. 

“No bill that I filed to do with energy ever went anywhere, and speaking retrospectively, never did have a prayer,” said Provost, who served from 2006 to 2020, a tenure that included service on the House Committee on Global Warming and Climate Change.

Provost said that there was a lot of lobbying in the House while she was there and that it went “straight to the top.” 

“They do not bother lobbying rank and file members,” she added.

Roberts and his Brown colleagues found that opposition to climate bills were funded by utilities and chemical, real estate and fossil fuel companies. The utilities spent more than any other business group and had the most success in blocking legislation, according to the report.

“They managed to block over 80 pieces of legislation over those six years,” Roberts said. “And of the very few bills that got through, they were virtually all ones that they lobbied in favor of…If they don’t approve it, it’s very unlikely to get through. It’s almost impossible.”

Utilities supported large scale projects like offshore wind and hydropower imported from Canada and opposed rooftop solar and other “behind the meter” projects that cut into the companies’ revenue, according to the analysis.

The report was funded in part by the Barr Foundation, a Massachusetts philanthropy that supports the arts, education and efforts to address climate change. 

Ashwin Rode, director of scientific research at the University of Chicago’s Energy Policy Institute, called the paper an “unusually detailed, data-driven report.”

“I am not aware of anything that has been done at this level of detail,” Rode said.  

Eversource, a gas and electric utility company, spent $2.2 million opposing 32 climate and clean energy bills from 2013 to 2018, more money than any other company or interest group in Massachusetts, according to the report.

“The report seems to oversimplify the challenges of creating a clean energy future because we know that cost and reliability matter to our customers,” Reid Lamberty, a spokesperson for Eversource, said.  “We are actively involved in collaborating with legislators and stakeholders to share views on how we can create an affordable, clean energy future. That legislative process, designed to generate ideas and debate, often means a large number of bills are introduced at the start, with a few that end up being adopted.”

After Baker’s veto, state legislators refiled the bill on Jan. 19 at the start of a new legislative session, and state House and Senate leaders have called on their members to act with urgency on the legislation. 

Proponents hope for swift passage but fear amendments could derail the carefully crafted legislation that was the result of a months-long give and take between members of the House and Senate.    

“It’s got to happen fast,” said Cabell Eames, legislative manager for the Better Future Project, an environmental organization based in Massachusetts. “You can’t let these kinds of things sit around and linger, because when you do you give fuel to the opposition to organize against you.”

Eames said she was optimistic about the bill’s chances and noted that a lot has changed in state politics since 2018, the last year covered by the Brown University report. She cited a key scientific report in November 2018 that underscored the climate emergency and the need for aggressive action, as well as the subsequent emergence of the Sunrise Movement and other grassroots environmental organizations. 

Eames noted how longtime Massachusetts senator John Kerry, recently named President Biden’s special envoy on climate, testified before a state legislative hearing last summer, urging Massachusetts lawmakers to move forward on climate legislation. 

Ron Mariano, the new Speaker of the House, the more conservative of the state’s two Democratically controlled bodies, has also come out in strong support of the legislation since being elected to the leadership position on Dec. 30. 

Michael Barrett, a state senator and one of the chief negotiators of the climate bill, said the Senate and House have the votes they need to send the bill back to the governor and to override a veto if he doesn’t sign the legislation.

Barrett said lobbying from business interests is a legitimate concern, but he is confident the Legislature won’t be swayed by developers and other special interests.

“I will make a friendly bet with the authors of the Brown paper, that the public interest prevails, despite all the nefarious activities they so ably documented,” Barrett said. “I believe that the real estate industry is powerful, but not that powerful. They don’t do well on high profile issues that actually attract public attention. They do their best work when things remain below the radar screen.”