BOSTON — A look at some of the key issues before the Massachusetts Legislature as the House and Senate on Wednesday held the final formal sessions of 2015. Bills that do not win final approval but are not defeated altogether remain alive and could be taken up again during the second year of the two-year legislative session in 2016.
The House on Wednesday unanimously approved a bill that seeks to improve access to public records in Massachusetts by modernizing rules that were last updated in 1973. The bill would, among other things, require state agencies and municipalities to comply with most public records requests within 10 days and provide the records electronically, if possible. The bill also sets new caps on fees agencies charge for producing public records. The committee approved an amendment that calls for a study of whether the Legislature's long-standing exemption from the public records law should be lifted. Open government groups including Common Cause Massachusetts say the House bill is a step in the right direction toward greater government transparency. The Senate has yet to take up public records reform.
Both the House and Senate approved measures this week calling for a 2 percent increase in the cap on the state's "net metering" program that allows electric customers and local governments to sell excess solar power they generate back to the electrical grid in exchange for credit. But the two chambers disagree on several provisions including the reimbursement rate for large solar projects, with the Senate supporting a more generous rate than the House. House and Senate negotiators were meeting Wednesday evening but it was not immediately clear if a compromise would be reached. Lawmakers were hoping to raise the net metering cap before a federal solar energy tax credit expires at the end of the year.
SOCIAL MEDIA PRIVACY
The Senate on Wednesday unanimously approved a bill designed to protect the privacy of personal social media accounts for workers and students in Massachusetts. The legislation would forbid employers from demanding that job applicants or workers provide a user name or password for private social media accounts. Similarly, colleges and educational institutions would be barred from asking an applicant or enrolled student to provide access to a personal account. The bill also would make it illegal to punish an employee or student who refuses to add a person — such as a boss, teacher or coach — as a friend or contact on a social media account. The legislation now goes to the House.
The Senate joined the House on Wednesday in approving legislation that cracks down on fentanyl, a powerful narcotic often added to heroin. The measure would create the new crime of trafficking in fentanyl for amounts greater than 10 grams and set a punishment of up to 20 years in prison. The bill, originally proposed by Attorney General Maura Healey, needs only routine final votes in both chambers before going to Gov. Charlie Baker's desk. Lawmakers were not expected to complete work until next year on a more comprehensive bill to fight the state's deadly opioid abuse epidemic.
The House, without debate, gave preliminary approval on Tuesday to a bill that would require hands-free cellphone use by all Massachusetts drivers, except in emergency situations. If the measure becomes law, Massachusetts would join several other Northeast states including New York, Connecticut, New Hampshire and Vermont that prohibit motorists from holding cellphones while they are on the road. The bill has several more hurdles to pass but could be on track for further consideration next year.