Gov candidates vague on electricity rate spike

Differ on gas tax indexing, bottle bill

The candidates for governor differ sharply on ballot questions dealing with the gas tax and the bottle bill, but on the most pressing environmental issue facing the region – what to do as coal power plants close and electricity prices climb into the stratosphere – they are all sticking to generalities.

Four of the five candidates appeared one after another on Wednesday at a forum at Suffolk University sponsored by a host of environmental groups. The candidates were all given the questions in advance, so there were no surprises.

One of the questions noted electricity prices are expected to spike 37 percent this winter, and asked how the candidates planned to respond. Would they favor expanding natural gas pipeline capacity coming into the region or would they favor reducing the state’s heavy reliance on natural gas?

Attorney General Martha Coakley, the Democrat in the race, said she would bring stakeholders to the table to discuss the issue, but offered no specifics. She said her goal was a diversified energy portfolio that offered consumers and businesses reasonable prices.

Republican candidate Charlie Baker said he would favor the importation of far more Canadian hydroelectricity into the region and push for competitively bid onshore wind. He said he also favored plugging leaks in existing gas lines to conserve energy and improve the environment. “We need to be about a diversified portfolio,” he said, specifically mentioning wind, solar, and hydro.

Baker said he lamented the fact that Patrick administration officials years ago did not move to expand the capacity of existing natural gas pipelines coming into the region. He claimed it was well known then that coal-fired power plants would soon be retiring.

Jeff McCormick, an independent candidate, said he is a fan of hydroelectricity and other forms of renewable energy, although he said officials need to be mindful that energy represents a key business cost. McCormick said a short-term solution to the state’s energy needs could be trucked-in natural gas. “It is a step in the right direction. It is not a permanent solution,” he said.

Evan Falchuk, another independent candidate, said he opposes construction of a proposed natural gas pipeline from the New York border to Dracut and, if elected, would do everything in his power to block federal efforts to take land for it. He said he favored a more diverse energy supply by increasing the development of wind, solar, and hydro power. He also lamented the Legislature’s failure during the last session to pass legislation that would have responded to the looming energy shortage.

Here’s how the candidates responded on other issues:

Environmental funding – All four candidates said they favor spending 1 percent of the state budget on environmental agencies.

Meet the Author

Bruce Mohl

Editor, CommonWealth

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

Bottle bill – Coakley and Falchuk said they favored expansion of the bottle bill to include containers for noncarbonated beverages. Baker said he opposes the expansion. McCormick wasn’t asked the question.

Gas tax indexing – Baker and McCormick said they oppose gas tax indexing because they believe taxes should be raised only if the Legislature votes to raise them. Coakley and Falchuk said they support indexing the gas tax to inflation. Falchuk said indexing would make the gas tax more like the income and sales taxes, which are percentage-based and rise and fall as income or sale prices move. Coakley said the state needs the money an indexed gas tax would bring in.

Carbon tax – Coakley said she was open to a carbon tax. “For me, that’s on the table,” she said. Coakley cautioned that a carbon tax would have to be revenue neutral for businesses. Baker said he supports the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, which is effectively a regional carbon tax on electricity production, but was cautious about expanding it. He said he didn’t want to put Massachusetts businesses at a cost disadvantage relative to other states. Falchuk said he was receptive to a broader carbon tax. McCormick was not asked about the carbon tax.