Spilka pledges ‘comprehensive climate bill’ in Senate

Massachusetts Senate President Karen Spilka

Massachusetts Senate President Karen Spilka AP FILE PHOTO/MICHAEL DWYER


State House News Service

Published: 04-23-2024 3:22 PM

BOSTON — Signaling the potential for more change in the transportation and energy sectors, Senate President Karen Spilka revealed Monday that the Senate plans to tackle a major climate bill before formal sessions come to a close in just over three months.

The Ashland Democrat said at a Greater Boston Business Chamber event in the Seaport that the “comprehensive plan” to address the climate crisis will be led by Sen. Michael Barrett, co-chair of the Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy, and Majority Leader Sen. Cynthia Creem.

Spilka did not reveal specifics about what to expect in the bill, but said public transportation and emissions-free travel are “just two ways to help combat” climate change.

Barrett and his House counterpart, Rep. Jeffrey Roy, have discussed making another run at changes in state laws governing energy and emissions, but no major proposals have emerged for debate ahead of the July 31 end of formal legislative sessions.

Asked for more details about the Senate’s climate plan, Spilka said they’re “working on it right now.”

“Senators Barrett and Creem are looking at the issues. There will be some look at the grid and battery storage and electrification and other areas. So, I don’t want to get into it too much, because I know that they’re working on it,” Spilka said.

With time for formal sessions winding down, the Senate president’s speech featured some of her priorities for the next three months — education initiatives senators plan to add to the budget, giving the Health Policy Commission more teeth in the wake of a financial crisis in one of the state’s largest health care systems, approving a housing bond bill, and supporting legislation that would gradually expand juvenile court jurisdiction to include young adults between the ages of 18 and 20.

“Now, some would say that because of the challenges we face as a commonwealth, we have to scale back our ambition to tackle some of our most persistent challenges,” Spilka said, referring to the state’s tax collections, which have dipped below expectations. “But I would argue that now is not the time to pull back on the critical investments that have been — and will continue to be — beacons of hope and opportunity for our residents.”

Free community college in budget proposal

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The Senate plans in its budget next month to tackle initiatives to pay for students’ schooling from “cradle to career.” Spilka confirmed that the Senate Ways and Means budget will propose free community college for all residents, which she had previously teased, as well as a new private-public partnership to create more child care seats through working with employers.

Asked about continuing accountability for students, Spilka took a stance on one of the hottest education topics this year. She told Boston Chamber President Jim Rooney that she did not support a ballot question to decouple a high school standardized test from graduation requirements.

The question that could go before voters in November would not get rid of the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) tests, but would remove the requirement that students pass it in 10th grade in order to graduate, and instead allow districts to set graduation requirements based on completion of coursework.

“I’ve given this a lot of thought,” Spilka said. “But accountability is important, as well, so I cannot — and it’s taken a while to process and get to this — but I cannot support totally getting rid of the MCAS as a requirement without some reasonable alternative. We need to make sure that our kids are learning. We’re number one in education right now, I don’t want to lose that.”

The free community college policy that Senate Ways and Means plans to include in their budget is notably absent from the House Ways and Means spending bill that representatives will vote on later this week. The initiative will likely be a major topic of debate between representatives and senators in final budget negotiations.

Senate Ways and Means Chair Michael Rodrigues told reporters on Monday that he expects the total cost of free community college to come in or below $125 million, but that they’re still working out the numbers.

Removing barriers to education

Spilka also used her speech to respond to some concerns she has heard about the program, including that the initiative would do more to help middle-income students rather than providing the most financial support to the lowest-income Bay Staters.

The Hildreth Institute released a report earlier this month saying that making community college broadly free would favor students from moderate to middle-income backgrounds, and argued lawmakers should instead consider helping the lowest-income students with other barriers to education such as housing and transportation.

“The Senate’s proposal for a universal free community college to every resident has generated a lot of discussion, and I really welcome that dialogue,” Spilka said. “But the fact remains that if we want a generation of students to benefit from the terrific programs at our many community colleges across the state, we must remove as many barriers to education as possible. Free is a lot easier to understand than, ‘It will be free if you have the time, supportive adults, and language capabilities needed to fill out these many complicated forms.’”

Spilka’s idea to expand early childhood education and care was well-received Monday by the business community, who have said better child care allows more parents to return to the workforce.

The program would provide matching funds up to 50% of the cost of each new child care seat an employer creates, according to Spilka’s office.

“This pilot program, which we included in our bill earlier and we’ll be funding in our upcoming budget, is equitable by design and parameters are placed to help guarantee good paying jobs and support families with lower incomes. But I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, we cannot tackle our child care challenges alone. We know that this issue is a priority for so many of you here today,” Spilka told the business community.

She also discussed giving more power to the Health Policy Commission, which has been asking for more authority for years.

The HPC has renewed their request for Beacon Hill to grant the agency more powers in the wake of an uncertain financial situation with Steward Health Care and a broad expansion of private equity-owned health care in Massachusetts.

The for-profit network’s financial problems have spilled into public view, in part stemming from a backlog of unpaid rent, and Gov. Maura Healey and state regulators have accused the company of not providing necessary financial documents.

“I want to suggest here an opportunity to consider going further, which is to understand that the HPC, in our market oversight role, is truly just a public transparency role. We have no authority to deny or approve or impose conditions on any of the proposed transactions that come before us, even if we have identified significant negative harm to patients in the commonwealth,” agency Executive Director David Seltz said earlier this month.

Spilka gave voice to the idea of expanding their powers, alluding to it briefly in her Monday morning speech.

“We are also looking at possibly changing or expanding the role of the Health Policy Commission, or HPC, this fall, as it has been more than a decade since we have done so,”  Spilka said.