An executive order by Governor Charlie Baker has set off alarms among environmentalists, consumer activists, and union leaders, who fear it will dismantle some of Massachusetts’ strict regulations governing the state’s water and air quality standards, worker safety requirements, and health regulations.
Baker, in a March 31 directive to all state agencies, is requiring a yearlong review of nearly all state regulations, with a mandate that none should exceed federal requirements, which in many cases are far less stringent than the state’s. He wants only regulations that do not “unduly and adversely affect Massachusetts citizens and customers of the Commonwealth.”
The order, which has drawn early support from some business interests, suggests that many current state regulations have imposed “unnecessary cost, burden, and complexity.”
Critics, however, say such rollbacks mean Massachusetts stands to lose its reputation for imposing some of the strictest regulatory standards in a host of areas, from environmental protection and climate change to occupational safety, consumer protections, and oversight of health providers.
“Make no mistake, this is a far-reaching order. If honored according to its terms, it will severely hamper Massachusetts environmental regulators,” Seth D. Jaffe, a partner at Foley Hoag, wrote on the law firm’s “Law & the Environment” blog.
George Bachrach, president of the Environmental League of Massachusetts, said: “There is great concern across the board” in the education, public health, labor, business, and environmental fields.
Bachrach and about 20 other leaders in a broad range of areas held a conference call Thursday to grapple with implications of Baker’s edict to examine the state’s approximately 2,200 regulations.
“The consensus is that this unfortunately has the potential to undermine our national leadership,” he said. “Massachusetts takes pride that it is a national leader in health care, education, biotech and life sciences, and the environment. Why should we be subservient to Washington, D.C.?”
Administration officials argue that the order is not as rigid as critics claim. The order says an existing regulation could stay in place if “less restrictive and intrusive alternatives have been considered and found less desirable based on a sound evaluation of the alternatives.” Baker’s secretary of administration and finance also has the right to grant waivers.
“The governor believes reviewing regulations, as prior administrations have, is essential to making state government more accountable to the people, and the executive order makes clear that only onerous, unnecessary regulations will be reviewed,” Baker’s spokesman Tim Buckley said in an
Still, the executive order raised concerns among environmental advocates and others that Baker, who campaigned in his race for governor last year as a moderate Republican sensitive to environmental concerns, might be swerving to the right of the political spectrum, at least on regulatory issues.
While almost every governor in the past 25 years conducted reviews to find ways to streamline state regulations, Baker’s move — particularly ordering that federal requirements trump state regulations — comes at a time when right-leaning groups such as the American Legislative Exchange Council are working to undo state-imposed corporate and environmental regulations.
By creating such a broad review, critics say Baker opens the door to well-represented regulated industries reshaping the regulations to meet their interests.
“If the presumption is to roll back regulations, it is a recipe for turning government over to the big powerful special interests,” said Janet Domenitz, executive director of MassPIRG, a consumer advocacy nonprofit. “We don’t want powerful special interests in their alligator shoes running amok over this process.”
Tedd Saunders, president of EcoLogical Solutions, an environmental consulting firm that works with the hospitality industry, said the sweep of Baker’s review will create unease in the business community.
“Every business needs certainty,” Saunders said. “If regulations are in place, we can work with them. This yearlong review is throwing everything up in the air. And it opens the floodgate to let special interests who are not thinking of public interest come in and undermine the regulations they don’t like.”
But some business groups insist that persistent and tough reviews of state regulations are important to keep the state competitive and innovative.
“There is a good question to ask: Why do we have higher standards than the federal government?” said David I. Begelfer, chief executive of the National Association of Industrial and Office Property Massachusetts. It’s not enough to say more stringent is better, he said.
And Rick Lord, president and chief executive of Associated Industries of Massachusetts, dismissed the charge that well-financed interests will use the review to ease state regulations.
“There will be public hearings, all parties will be able to weigh in. That is the way public policy works,” Lord said. He said AIM’s members, who do business across the country and rate bureaucratic red tape a top irritant, face a burdensome dual system of regulations because of the difference between Massachusetts and federal standards.
Still, the broad sweep of Baker’s order concerned some with direct knowledge of the regulatory process. Ken Kimmell, commissioner of the state Department of Environmental Protection in the Patrick administration, said Baker’s order is “troubling” in part because he believes the one-year timetable for such a broad review is unrealistic.
He suggested a more targeted approach, such as the one Governor Deval Patrick took in his second term.
“Everyone was pretty happy with that result — from the business community to environmentalists,” Kimmell said. “The ground rules were to streamline but without lowering environmental standards. It worked.”
Kimmell also echoed concerns about tying state regulations to the federal standards.
“Massachusetts has a long and successful history in using the best available science and setting our own standards to keep our air, water, and natural resources clean,” said Kimmell, now president of the Union of Concerned Scientists.
The differences between state and federal regulations can be stark. For example, the state’s environmental protection agency has named 432 species — mammals, birds, reptiles and plants — as “threatened” or of “special concern.” The federal government lists only 24 of those species in the same two categories.
The barn owl and the Peregrine falcon, for instance, are on the state’s protective list but not the federal government’s.
Massachusetts adopted strict regulations on the chemical perchlorate when it was found in the drinking water on Cape Cod nearly a decade ago. The federal government currently has no limitations on its use, although the Environmental Protection Agency is developing a proposed drinking water regulation for perchlorate.
Massachusetts is part of a cap-and-trade program with a host of regional states to stem power plant pollution. The agreement calls for a 50 percent reduction in carbon dioxide emissions from 2005 levels by 2020. The federal standard is a 30 percent reduction by 2030.
When he campaigned in 2014, Baker presented himself as a far better ally to environmental activists than his Washington GOP colleagues.
He supported several major initiatives, including the cap and trade program to reduce greenhouse emissions and the promotion of renewable energy.
He also was clear in his 2014 race that he wanted to streamline state regulations, although he never outlined in detail any plans.
Frank Phillips can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.