04 Oct Massachusetts Senate expands benefits, protections for Veterans
BOSTON — The Massachusetts Senate on Thursday passed a bill giving veterans preference for subsidized housing, protecting state workers called to military service and providing various benefits for veterans and their families.
The bill, S.2325/H.4285, would also create a new state-level position overseeing housing for veterans, including at the Holyoke and Chelsea Soldiers’ Homes, although Western Massachusetts lawmakers inserted an amendment ensuring that day-to-day operations at the Holyoke home would remain under local control.
“It is our duty as American citizens to honor our dead, but it is equally important to honor our living veterans for their service,” said state Sen. Michael Rush, D-West Roxbury, chairman of the Joint Committee on Veterans and Federal Affairs. “This bill does both those things.”
The bill passed the Senate unanimously, 37-0. A similar bill passed the House last month, and differences will now need to be worked out before the final bill goes to Gov. Charlie Baker for his signature.
As The Republican / MassLive.com reported previously, the bill would create a new Office of State Veterans’ Homes and Housing within the Department of Veterans’ Services to deal with all matters related to veterans’ housing, including the soldiers’ homes, which provide residential long-term care to veterans. The goal of the new office and its director is to ensure that best practices are shared between the two soldiers’ homes and throughout the state when it comes to housing veterans.
Western Massachusetts lawmakers introduced amendments in both the House and the Senate to ensure that day-to-day operations at the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home continue to be run by the local board and superintendent. The Senate amendment says the superintendent and board will not be subject to the control of the new Office of Veterans’ Homes and Housing.
The amendment, which passed on a voice vote, was sponsored by state Sen. Don Humason, R-Westfield. Humason said the Holyoke home should not be under the direct oversight of the new housing director, since it is already being run by a superintendent, and since the needs of the soldiers’ homes are different than other veterans’ housing needs.
“There is a real sense of pride and ownership when it comes to the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home, both on campus and in the surrounding communities,” Humason said in a statement. “So it was important that we did all we could to preserve local autonomy and ensure people with strong ties to the Soldiers’ Home and Western Massachusetts are able to play a lead role in its day-to-day operations and future.”
State Sens. Eric Lesser, D-Longmeadow, and James Welch, D-West Springfield, spoke in favor of the amendment on the Senate floor.
Lesser said the additional oversight provided by the statewide office is unnecessary. He said the needs of Western Massachusetts veterans are unique because a lot of state services are located far away. “What we seek to do is preserve the unique levels of local control at the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home,” Lesser said.
Senate President Stan Rosenberg, D-Amherst, who is traveling in the Netherlands, Denmark and Sweden on an energy-related trip, said in a statement, “The Soldiers Homes in both Holyoke and Chelsea provide both critical care and a community that is essential for the well-being of our veterans. This bill provides the reassurances veterans deserve that their boards of trustees shall remain independent, and that day-to- day operations will remain under the control of superintendents who work directly with them.”
The bill includes a range of other provisions. It expands a public service scholarship for children of Vietnam-era prisoners of war to children of all prisoners of war. It allows children of all public employees who were killed on the job to apply, rather than just children of veterans, police officers, firefighters and correctional officers who were killed.
The bill would prohibit employment discrimination against veterans, rather than just active military personnel, as is the current law.
It gives veterans preference for eligibility for low-income housing, including housing for seniors and people with disabilities. Currently, veterans only get preference for housing in the community where they live, and this would extend that statewide.
It allows state employees who leave for military service for more than 30 days to continue to be paid their salary minus their military pay and to have their seniority protected. It provides a property tax exemption for family members of National Guardsmen who died during active military service.
Numerous amendments expanding the bill were added on the Senate floor.
Among them were provisions expanding which family members can receive Gold Star license plates; allowing municipalities to establish funds with voluntary donations by taxpayers to help local veterans; making families of soldiers who died on active duty but not in combat eligible for financial assistance for funerals, housing and other needs; expanding eligibility for veterans’ tuition rates; and creating a commission to study issues related to accessible housing for veterans with disabilities.