Rep. Kuros Releases Update from the Hill
As I write this, the Massachusetts House of Representatives has just wrapped up the first year of formal sessions in our two year term, and have entered our annual holiday recess to resume formal sessions after the first of the year. I wanted to provide a brief update on several pieces of legislation that recently cleared the House.
First, just before Veterans Day we passed the Stolen Valor Act which makes it illegal to falsely represent oneself as military personnel, a veteran, or a recipient of specific military honors in order to receive money, property or a tangible benefit. It saddens me that such a law is even necessary, but we see increasing cases of people impersonating veterans to take advantage of programs and benefits intended for veterans. While there is a Federal law against this, the passage of this law means we will no longer need to wait on the Feds to bring people who steal our veterans’ valor to justice.
A second significant bill we passed was the first major update to MA’s public records laws in more than a generation. Historically, records requests have been handled inconsistently from town to town, and the legislation enumerates and clarifies the timeframe and process in which requested documents must be produced and ensures that judicial remedies can be sought for failure to do so. The bill also sets guidelines for fees associated with obtaining documents.
This legislation requires municipalities and agencies to designate a point person for records access to assist the public and facilitate timely responses. To create a predictable and rigorous timeline for responses, the bill mandates that records access officers comply with a request within ten business days of receipt. If the officer is unable to do so, he or she must contact the requester to identify pertinent documents, provide a fee estimate and specify why more time is needed. The bill caps the amount of time that may be taken for a response. Agencies must comply within 60 days, and municipalities must comply within 75 days. An extension may only be granted one time.
To ensure that the public can access records for a reasonable fee, agencies and municipalities will be prevented from charging for the initial time spent responding to a request, unless that request exceeds two hours for municipalities and four hours for agencies. The hourly rate at which an agency or municipality can charge for a request is also capped in this bill, a provision which was not previously included in Massachusetts’ public records law. Fees and costs can be appealed by the requesting party and, accordingly, the supervisor of public records may reduce any unreasonable fee.
In addition, the bill expands the Attorney General’s powers by granting the AG the power to file an enforcement suit against any agency or municipality, and intervene in cases involving public records. It also empowers the AG to seek civil penalties for violations of public records laws. With changes included in the bill, records may be provided electronically and agencies must post commonly requested public records online.
While I am generally pleased that the bill reaches a compromise between the availability of information and the time demands to provide information, I feel it does fall short in one area. Specifically, I felt the bill should also apply to the Legislature and I voted to support an Amendment that would extend the bill to our body. Disappointingly, the amendment was defeated on a procedural move and a “study” was ordered. So for now the bill does not apply to the Legislature despite our efforts to do so.
Third, we took up the Solar Power Cap. This is too complex an issue to adequately explain in this column, but in short, our utility companies are currently required to purchase power generated by solar farms at the retail rate charged to their customers, but only up to a total cap amount previously set by the Legislature. Beyond the cap the utilities are not required to purchase the energy, and since it is more expensive than other forms of energy, once the cap is hit the utilities won’t buy the solar energy. National Grid recently hit their cap, which has stalled solar projects in many towns. I joined my colleagues in passing legislation that immediately raises the net-metering cap while providing a long-term roadmap for future solar development so we can reach our 2020 solar energy goals. The immediate cap increase, which equals 2 percent for private facilities and 2 percent for public facilities, will allow the majority of net metering projects currently in the development pipeline to progress. This change represents a 44 percent increase of the overall cap.
From a process perspective, the Senate passed their version of the bill in the summer. We passed our version in late November. Since the versions differed on a number of items in this very complex subject, a Conference Committee was established to resolve the differences. Unfortunately the CC was not able to resolve the differences before recess so this will be one of the first items to be taken up when we resume in January, unless unanimous consent can be reached to pass a CC version of the bill in informal session before then.
Finally, I wanted to provide an update on a letter I signed on to with most of my Central MA colleagues. You may have read that a Department of Defense facility in Worcester was compromised and some weapons were stolen, including assault rifles. We wrote to the Secretary of Defense asking for assurances that a process will be put in place to prevent recurrence of something similar in the future. It is important to note that a suspect has been apprehended and the weapons were recovered out of state. The letter we sent is on my website at www.kevinkuros.com. I will provide any updates from the Secretary when we receive them.
In closing, while the Legislature is in informal sessions until January, I have scheduled office hours in each of my towns on December 7th and December 11th. See the Bellingham Bulletin or my website for specifics. Enjoy the holidays!