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Regional News

Massachusetts House Speaker calls request for east-west rail authority 'very premature'

The Speaker of the Massachusetts House, Ron Mariano.
File photo
/
State House News Service
The Speaker of the Massachusetts House, Ron Mariano.

Representative Ron Mariano, who says he is very focused on pending legislation, will be wrapping up his first term as Speaker of the House in a little more than a month.

Last week, Mariano addressed East-West rail insofar as implying that he will not be prioritizing that measure, which is supported by Gov. Charlie Baker and U.S. Rep. Richard Neal.

Mariano said it was "very premature" to talk about creating a new east-west rail authority. Matt Murphy, of the State House News Service, explains what’s going on.

Matt Murphy, State House News Service: Yeah, the speaker raising some concerns or just his desire to get more information. He said the committees looking at this have requested more data, more information about this authority that would oversee the construction and implementation of an east-west rail project. And the speaker flagged some issues like what the cost of this new authority would be, who would staff it, how big would it be? These are a lot of questions that weren't necessarily answered when the governor and Congressman Neal, kind of laid out this authority as the body that would oversee the east-west rail project.

I don't think it's necessarily that the speaker is opposed to east-west rail or, that he is trying to slow walk this project. But the question of authorizing this authority, I think it's a big question mark about whether it gets done. And wondering if that is central to moving forward with the project and applying for, and receiving, federal transportation funds? Potentially not. The state could get the funding that it needs and try and line up that financing and deal with oversight and implementation at a later date. But certainly, the governor, and the Western Mass delegation wants to do all this in tandem so that it moves together. And I wouldn't say that this is a done deal yet, but certainly some major question marks here around this one piece of the project.

Carrie Healy, NEPM: The governor in recent days filed a $56 million bill to fund the class action settlement stemming from the COVID 19 deaths of veterans at the Holyoke Soldiers' Home in 2020. He said while this measure doesn't make up for the loss of life, it could bring some closure for families. I assume there won't be opposition to funding this from lawmakers, but what is known about a projected timeline?

Yeah, not a lot of wiggle room on this. This is a settlement that the state reached in this class action lawsuit. You know, it would be shocking if the legislature were to vote this down. There's not much chance here to amend this. But the governor did just file it last week. It was admitted by the House, referred to the Ways and Means Committee. I'm sure they'll look at the funding, and where it fits into their overall budget picture. But I would expect this to move in the coming weeks, certainly before the end of July.

What's the status of any of the reforms lawmakers have been considering at state run veterans homes?

Those are still being negotiated between the branches. Both the House and Senate have passed legislation to overhaul oversight of the two soldiers’ homes, including the one in Holyoke, requiring new credentials for administrators, for instance, and the people who run these facilities. But this is still subject to talks between the branches, as it has been for quite a while. And, you know, unfortunately, once these things move into private talks, they sort of go behind closed doors. And it's hard to get any insight into what might be holding this up. But we have heard leadership talk about getting this done as a priority for the end of this session. It would be a really big failure if this were to fall apart as they enter these final weeks of the formal calendar.

And finally, House lawmakers have advanced their version of a mental health care access bill. The Senate plan took quite a different path from the House bill, which focused on youth behavioral health.  Are there any similarities that a conference committee could find common ground on to get this bill closer to the governor's desk?

Yeah, 100%. I mean, this is, again, another priority for both the branches and even the governor wanting to do something on behavioral health. So, the House and Senate Democratic leaders take a much different approach than Governor Baker had proposed, which was a lot of new spending in the area of behavioral health. But the House and Senate are both taking a swing at doing things like requiring insurance coverage for annual mental health wellness checkups. Just like you get physical checkups.

They're also looking at creating a new online portal for doctors and providers to be able to see where psychiatric, mental health and substance use treatment beds are available across the states. So, when they get patients in emergency rooms, they can quickly identify places to place them and get them the treatment they need. Of course, they must work out the details, but there's a lot of overlap. Speaker Mariano calling this a compliment to the Senate bill, not necessarily a redraft. So, I think they are going to be able to make progress in this area of this session.

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