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Massachusetts House prepping soldiers' home bill for a vote this week

The Holyoke Soldiers' Home.
Creative Commons

Legislation overhauling oversight and governance of state-run veterans homes in Holyoke and Chelsea is on deck for a Massachusetts House session on Thursday, Speaker Ronald Mariano said Monday.

After meeting Monday afternoon with Gov. Charlie Baker and Senate President Karen Spilka, Mariano said the House on Thursday will take up "a bill that's going to really improve the condition in the soldiers' homes and be the best thing that we can possibly do for our veterans in Massachusetts."

The bill, Mariano said, will draw "a lot of influence" from the reform package that Rep. Linda Dean Campbell and Sen. Mike Rush compiled after leading a legislative investigation into the fatal COVID-19 outbreak that tore through the Holyoke Soldiers' Home in spring 2020.

Campbell, a Methuen Democrat, said last September that the tragedy in Holyoke "resulted from multiple deficiencies of governing" and that "comprehensive change" was required in response.

The bill she originally filed — which has since been redrafted by the Veterans and Federal Affairs Committee and endorsed by the Health Care Financing Committee — would recast the governance structure at the Holyoke Soldiers' Home and the Chelsea Soldiers' Home, eliminating the boards of trustees that currently oversee each facility and creating new local stewardship bodies to provide community representation for the homes.

Among other measures, Campbell's bill would elevate the secretary of veterans' services to a Cabinet-level position, require soldiers' homes superintendents to be licensed nursing home administrators, and require the Department of Public Health to inspect both homes at least twice a year and publicly release the reports.

The latest version of Campbell's bill (H 4298) was referred to the House Ways and Means Committee last Thursday, and the committee could make its own changes before releasing the bill. The House has an informal session scheduled Wednesday, and sometimes bill are teed up for further deliberation during such sessions.

The House and Senate both have formal sessions scheduled for Thursday, when the Senate plans to consider a bill addressing prescription drug costs. Spilka said the Senate looks forward to receiving the soldiers' home bill from the House and "will be taking it up subsequently."

Formal legislative sessions for the 2021-2022 term end on July 31, giving the two branches just under six months to pass bills tackling their priorities and negotiate differences between House and Senate versions of legislation.

Zooming out past this week, Mariano also said work continues to "adjust" offshore wind legislation and indicated that the House plans to act this session to address "revenge porn," or the sharing of sexually explicit images or videos without their subjects' consent, a practice that Baker has repeatedly and unsuccessfully targeted with legislation.

Offshore wind policy legislation has been among Mariano's priorities. When the Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy Committee rolled out a bill last month that would soften the state's wind power price cap and impose new charges on gas and electric consumers to generate revenue for an offshore wind investment fund, the House chair of that panel, Rep. Jeff Roy, described it as something that Mariano "wants to do as soon as possible."

Asked Monday about the status of that bill, Mariano said, "Well, I think it will be acted on pretty quickly. I guess it's on your definition of quickly. There's 'legislative' quickly and then there's 'press' quickly."

He pointed to a recent trip he and Spilka took to Salem to visit "what we hope will be the focal point of all our offshore wind development here in Massachusetts" and said lawmakers "continue to adjust this bill to make sure that we understand what's needed to make Massachusetts the premier offshore wind center on the East Coast."

"We want to make sure we get this right," the Quincy Democrat said.

Baker, in his State of the Commonwealth speech last month, prodded lawmakers to act on some of his priority legislation, including the bill criminalizing "revenge porn," which he has filed three times.

Mariano said "yes" when asked if the House would act on that issue but did not provide a timeline.

He noted that Roy has also filed legislation involving the sharing of explicit content — Roy's bill (H 1859) speaks specifically to images shared by teens rather than adults — and expressed plans to "look at that and see if we can combine it with some of the things that the governor raised and get a bill that's a little bit more comprehensive."

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