By Gintautas Dumcius
STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE
STATE HOUSE -- As lawmakers hurriedly whipped bills to the governor's desk in the last weeks of the formal legislative session, some of their colleagues were filling up a watchdog agency's inbox.
A number of legislators, eyeing bills that they expected might come up for votes, filed disclosures with the State Ethics Commission in July in efforts to dispel the appearance of a conflict or note that they have a potential financial interest, according to a News Service review.
Two lawmakers, Sen. William Brownsberger (D-Belmont) and Rep. William Straus (D-Mattapoisett), both cited solar panels installed in their home as a solar energy policy bill lurched towards the finish line.
Instead an overhaul of the state system facilitating solar energy projects, lawmakers passed a bill lifting a cap on solar production and creating a task force to study net metering and the feasibility of Gov. Deval Patrick's goal of installing 1,600 megawatts of solar energy capacity by 2020.
One of the proposals that had been pitched during the debate on solar net metering included a minimum charge for homeowners in the net metering program regardless of whether the customer produced more energy than they consumed. That idea did not make it into the final bill.
It would have been a few dollars a month, but it would have affected him, Straus told the News Service.
"Because I had participated in the net metering program like thousands of other people, I just wanted to be sure if we had ended up with a floor debate... that I had disclosed it," said Straus, who chairs the House side of the Joint Committee on Transportation.
Straus had the solar unit installed on his roof in Dec. 2013, and during the summer months, "It has pretty much been generating all of our monthly - me and my wife's - energy demands," he said. "I consider myself very happy, plus the fact that you also feel good knowing that you're not causing people to have to burn extra oil to provide electricity for me."
Brownsberger, who co-chairs the Judiciary Committee, filed a similar disclosure, saying he receives a $2,000 subsidy for his installation.
"That amount could fluctuate considerably downward as a result of current policies and could remain at that level if policies are charged," he wrote.
Brownsberger also noted that he doesn't participate in municipal decisions around solar policy because he benefits from net metering in Belmont.
The disclosure to the Ethics Commission was made out of an "abundance of caution," he told the News Service. "I just err in favor of disclosure," he said.
Straus filed his disclosure on July 10 and Brownsberger submitted his filing on July 12. Lawmakers sent the final bill on a voice vote to the governor's desk on July 31, the last day of the 2013-2014 formal session, and Patrick signed it on Aug. 6.
Sen. Anthony Petruccelli, an East Boston Democrat, disclosed that he was affiliated with a charter school on July 16, the same day the Senate rejected a bill that would have lifted the cap on district spending for charter school enrollment by 5 percent. Petruccelli wrote that he was a member of the advisory board of the Excel Academy Charter School in his district. He was one of 13 senators to support the defeated bill.
Others offered various reasons for potential conflicts in their respective disclosures. In June, Rep. Donald Wong, a Saugus Republican, disclosed that he is a part-owner of the Kowloon Restaurant, the same day that House lawmakers considered a meals tax holiday as part of their version of an economic development package.
The measure failed when the House voted 102-37 to send it to a study, a tactic frequently used to kill legislation. Wong voted against the study amendment.
On July 31, Rep. Leonard Mirra (R-West Newbury) disclosed that he owns a construction business as the House considered a bill on retainage payments on certain private construction projects. Patrick signed the bill on Aug. 8 after it passed the House and Senate on voice votes.
"Among the issues covered by the proposed general legislation is a 5% cap on the portion of payment withheld to ensure full performance of private construction projects, and additional provisions regarding work performed by contractors," Mirra wrote. "If adopted, legislation relative to these topics would arguably have an effect on my financial interests which is different from the effect on the general public."
Seeking to dispel the appearance of a conflict of interest as the Senate an override of Patrick's veto of a section in the fiscal 2015 budget to provide $1.95 million for Cape Cod Community College's training program for airplane mechanics.
Sen. Daniel Wolf (D-Harwich) wrote on July 29 that he serves as the CEO of Hyannis Air Service Inc., which operates as Cape Air. The next day, the Senate and House unanimously overrode the veto.
Wolf's ownership of Cape Air, and its lease at Logan Airport, became an issue last year when Wolf was running for governor and the Ethics Commission flagged it as a concerning conflict of interest for both a gubernatorial candidate and state senator. After Wolf dropped out of the governor's race, the commission in January added an exemption to its regulations, allowing state and municipal public employees to hold a financial stake, under certain conditions, in non-competitively bid, ongoing state contracts.
The governor himself filed a disclosure in the waning days of the formal session on a bill authorizing the late filing of a tax abatement application for the Amherst Committee for A Better Chance, Inc. Patrick, who grew up in Chicago, received a scholarship to Milton Academy through A Better Chance.
"I was A Better Chance Scholar, although I was not affiliated with the Amherst chapter that is the subject of this legislation," Patrick wrote. The governor signed the bill on July 31.
Andy Metzger contributed reporting.