BOSTON (AP) — Massachusetts House Speaker Robert DeLeo said allowing more charter schools, promoting renewable energy, and finding middle ground in the fight pitting cab drivers against ride-hailing services such as Uber are at the top of his to-do list for the new legislative year.
DeLeo outlined his 2016 agenda on Wednesday during his annual address to fellow House members.
The Winthrop Democrat waded into one of the state's most fractious fights — the battle over whether to allow additional charter schools above the state's existing cap.
"Districts that want charters should be given the chance to pursue them, or any other option they may deem necessary, in order to do right by their students," DeLeo said. "We may not always agree on how we get there, but we must respond collectively to students who call out for opportunity."
Charter schools are public schools that operate largely independently from local school districts. They have won praise for educational innovation but have also been criticized for draining financial resources from traditional schools.
Democratic Senate President Stan Rosenberg announced last week that he had formed a working group to develop legislation to overhaul the charter school system. Republican Gov. Charlie Baker, a longtime supporter of charter schools, has also filed a bill to ease the state's cap.
There is also a potential ballot question that — like Baker's bill — would allow more.
DeLeo said the House would also seek ways to make ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft "part of the permanent landscape in Massachusetts" while recognizing the benefit that competition from taxicabs and livery companies brings to the marketplace. Cab drivers have complained that drivers for ride-hailing services face few regulations compared to cabs.
"In Massachusetts, we embrace innovation," DeLeo said. "In doing so, we balance time-honored notions of fairness and equity with a belief that competition is healthy."
A bill filed by Baker would require criminal background checks on all drivers and also require that drivers carry at least $1 million of insurance. Another bill, authored by two Democratic lawmakers, seeks more stringent rules, including the fingerprinting of drivers.
On the state's energy future, DeLeo said the House will embrace renewable forms of energy, but will also keep an eye on ensuring reasonable costs for ratepayers.
"This year, the House will pass legislation that will promote resource diversity and cleaner energy, contain costs and ensure that we maintain a reliable electric grid," he said.
As one of his renewable energy goals, Baker has pushed to allow the state to accept hydropower from Canada.
DeLeo also said the House version of the state budget won't contain any new taxes or fees. Baker, who released his version of the budget Wednesday, has also said he's opposed to higher taxes.
The formal legislative session runs through July 31.
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