Legislative leaders on Friday outlined plans to advance a $400 million bill funding the construction of a new Holyoke Soldiers Home but it's unclear if their timeline will be fast enough to quickly secure federal funding.
The House plans to vote next week on the bill — a formal session is planned on Thursday — and legislative leaders indicated they still plan to enact changes this session to reform how Massachusetts delivers and oversees veterans' services.
In a joint statement, House Speaker Ronald Mariano and Senate President Karen Spilka announced the House's plans for next week and said Senate action on the funding bill will follow "in the coming weeks."
"At the same time, we recognize that in order to truly provide the services our veterans deserve, we must build on our previous work to reform the statewide structure and governance system for veterans’ homes and services," Mariano and Spilka said.
"Therefore, we are committed to advancing reforms this session to modernize our service model, and the state's role in overseeing these services, to more effectively meet the needs of the changing veteran population while recognizing the need for regional equity."
Gov. Charlie Baker has been pushing for action on the borrowing bill to meet a deadline for a federal grant program that could reimburse up to 65% of the project cost. To qualify for funding, Massachusetts needs to submit an application including design documents by Aug. 1, according to the administration, but the Division of Capital Asset Management and Maintenance cannot start the months-long design process until the Legislature passes the authorization. Baker had hoped the bill could have passed by April 1.
Lawmakers on the Bonding, Capital Expenditures and State Assets Committee expressed frustration about the timeline at a hearing this week before advancing the bill. The committee voted 17-0, with two unnamed members reserving their rights, in favor of the legislation, according to co-chair Rep. Danielle Gregoire's office.
A separate committee that has been investigating the deadly outbreak at the Holyoke Soldiers' Home also announced plans Friday to hold its ninth oversight hearing on Tuesday, where Department of Veterans Services chief of staff Paul Moran will testify on topics including leadership, communications and chain of command.
"As we are all sadly aware, last year's Holyoke Soldiers' Home leadership crisis resulted in the death of over 70 veterans, representing at the time the highest percentage of deaths due to COVID-19 in any elder health care facility in the United States," Mariano and Spilka said. "The Special Joint Oversight Committee, led by Chairs Campbell and Rush, is currently conducting a thoughtful investigation into the circumstances surrounding this tragedy. The Commission will complete its work soon and we will do the necessary due diligence to advance their recommendations into law."