A small group of advocates marched through Boston Common on Saturday afternoon, calling on Governor Charlie Baker and the state Legislature to pass a bill that would relieve residents of unpaid utility debts and reduce gas and electricity bills for the next four years.
About 30 people attended the rally, as megaphones carried their message of “taking back the grid” across the wind-whipped park.
The bill in question, which some refer to as “Utility Relief For All,” seeks to address what advocates say is a utility debt crisis that has taken hold during the pandemic. The bill is under consideration by the legislature’s Joint Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities, and Energy.
“There’s been a huge increase in utility debt in Massachusetts during the pandemic, and a lot of this debt is more than 90 days old, leaving people vulnerable to shut offs,” said Drew Pendergrass, an organizer with Take Back the Grid, a committee formed under Massachusetts’ branch of Democratic Socialists of America. “We need some kind of workable solution where people are relieved of that debt and don’t have to worry about it anymore while the other hardships of the pandemic continue.”
The group gathered at the Common’s Parkman Bandstand to listen to impassioned speeches from a few leaders and state representatives before marching through the park and gathering at the steps of the Massachusetts State House. They carried signs and chanted “What do we want? Debt relief! When do we want it? Now!”
Under the bill, which was discussed by the joint committee earlier this month, a fund would be established to relieve all of the debt state residents have incurred from utility companies over the course of the pandemic. It also calls for electric and gas bills to be slashed in half until 2026 and a two-year moratorium on rate hikes.
The bill would be financed by a so-called “polluter’s fee,” which, like a carbon tax, would charge companies based on the amount of carbon and other greenhouse gases they emit. Leftover funds from the fee would go to funding renewable energy projects.
“What we’re facing right now is this imminent moral question before us,” said Representative Erika Uyterhoeven, the original sponsor of the bill. “We need to take back the grid and we’re going to take back these utilities, because they ought to be in our hands. These aren’t things that they are giving to us as a favor. These are things that are rightfully ours.”
A November report from the National Consumer Law Center found that, as of June 2021, some 800,000 Massachusetts residents had fallen behind on utilities bills, together owing companies like Eversource and National Grid roughly $794 million. A person is at risk of having their utilities shut off when they have fallen 90 days behind on a payment.
“The utility debt crisis is not some sort of problem without a solution” said Uyterhoeven. “This is about the basic fundamental dignity, respect, and humanity that every single one of us deserves.”