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Editorial: Our to-do list for the Legislature


Thursday, December 22, 2016

The Legislature opens its 2017 session in two weeks on Jan. 4, and we hope that lawmakers put these five issues of particular interest for western Massachusetts on their to-do list.

STATE AID FOR RURAL SCHOOLS: Mohawk Trail Regional School District Superintendent Michael Buoniconti leads a new Massachusetts Rural Schools Coalition which is lobbying for changes in how state aid for education is calculated.

The coalition asserts that rural school districts face a combination of challenges — including declining enrollments, sparse populations and lower per-capita incomes — that differ from other areas of the state and should factor into the Chapter 70 aid to education fund.

The coalition has proposed an adjustment for “sparsity aid,” modeled after a similar effort in Wisconsin. According to Buoniconti, about 50 school districts in Massachusetts would benefit from the adjustment, at a total cost of about $20 million.

Regional school districts, particularly those in rural areas, do have special needs, including the cost of busing. We urge the Legislature to consider the coalition’s proposed formula and provide some relief to rural schools.

SOLAR NET METERING: A compromise measure adopted this year slightly lifting the cap on net metering already needs further adjustment by the Legislature in 2017.

The state’s net metering program allows homeowners, communities and other solar developers to sell excess power they generate back to the electrical grid in exchange for credit on their bills. However, the state caps the amount of solar energy that can be sold back to the grid, decreasing the incentive for new projects.

The Legislature this year increased the cap by 3 percent, which solar advocates argued was insufficient.

Earlier this month, state Senate President Stanley Rosenberg, D-Amherst, said that clean energy initiatives in 2017 will include further efforts to encourage solar power. “We need to revisit solar metering again because we have hit the cap in certain regions,” he said. “We don’t want to slow down the growth and installation of solar power in the commonwealth.”

The Legislature should boost solar power in 2017 with a significant increase in the net metering cap.

WAGE THEFT: The Senate passed two bills this year addressing wage theft — failing to pay the minimum wage or not compensating employees for all hours worked — but because they did not win House approval, they failed to become law.

The Wage Violations Bill would give the attorney general more authority to intervene and increase civil penalties that could be imposed on businesses that underpay workers. The Wage Theft Prevention Bill would make companies liable for using subcontractors that cheated.

A series by the Daily Hampshire Gazette published in September detailed an underground economy in which at least seven Asian restaurants in Hampshire County paid workers well below the legally required $10-an-hour minimum wage for workweeks that range between 50 and 72 hours.

Rosenberg says “the disturbing reality is that wage theft is widespread throughout Massachusetts. In some sectors of our economy, wage theft has reached epidemic levels.”

We hope that the House follows the Senate’s lead in 2017 to produce tough new regulations cracking down on wage theft.

EXPANDED DAIRY TAX CREDITS: State Rep. Stephen Kulik, D-Worthington, wants to increase the amount of tax credits the state makes available to dairy farmers. The program helps make up the difference between the federal limits set on the price of milk and the cost of its production.

The credits are capped at $2 million statewide, a total which Kulik says is insufficient to meet the needs of dairy farmers. He wants the cap increased to $6 million, perhaps in two phases.

According to Kulik, the tax credit is worth between $15,000 and $20,000 per farm, a relatively small amount that helps keep the dairy industry alive in Massachusetts.

EXPANDED CONSERVATION LAND TAX CREDITS: This program provides tax credits of up to $75,000 to people who donate property to the state, a land trust or other nonprofit for preservation of natural resources including drinking water, wildlife habitats, agriculture and forestry.

The program is capped at $4 million per year, which Kulik says results in up to a two-year delay for land donors to qualify for the tax credit. He wants to increase it to $10 million, which would eliminate the backlog.

We believe expanding the two tax credit programs by the modest amounts Kulik suggests are worthwhile long-term investments in the state’s dairy industry and natural resources.