New Holyoke Soldiers’ Home bill ready for final passage

UI solvency assessments, paid leave program also on House agenda

BOSTON — The Massachusetts House appears to be gearing up to act on two major policy proposals next week when the Legislature also has a chance to send Gov. Charlie Baker a consensus bill to both construct a new Holyoke Soldiers’ Home and address long-term care for veterans in other parts of the state.

According to a spokesperson for Speaker Ron Mariano, the House early next week plans to “conceptually reject” most of Gov. Charlie Baker’s amendments, which he proposed on April 1, to legislation establishing a COVID-19 paid emergency leave program.

The House plans to restore municipal employees to the program after Baker sliced them out of a larger proposal that he signed off on while returning the COVID-19 leave program proposal with amendments (H 3703).

One of the governor’s amendments would exclude municipal workers, including teachers, public works employees, police, and others. The administration said the change would align COVID-19 sick leave with the state’s Paid Family and Medical Leave program, which allows cities and towns to opt-in instead.

However, Democratic leaders told the News Service last month that municipal employees deserve to take advantage of the program, which would provide up to five days of paid time off for full-time employees who are sick with COVID-19, isolating, taking time off to get vaccinated, or caring for a family member ill with the virus.

Work on the leave program continues more than a year into the pandemic. While confirmed cases are falling and vaccinations are surging, lawmakers appear intent on enacting the program, which advocates began pushing for the last session. The amendments have been under review in the House Committee on Bills in Third Reading, chaired this session by Rep. Denise Garlick.

While details were not available, the House next week also plans to address rising solvency assessments on business that were not addressed in the underlying bill aimed at reducing unemployment insurance premium hikes on companies in part by authorizing $7 billion in borrowing.

“We requested information from the Baker Administration around the unexpected solvency issue, including a cost estimate, and the Legislature has been working collaboratively on a solution for our businesses,” the Mariano spokesperson said. “The House remains steadfast in its support of these issues and expects a resolution soon.”

Seeing federal aid funds as a potential source of revenue to address the problem, policymakers have been waiting for U.S. Treasury guidance to determine if those funds can be used to address the solvency rate issues. The Treasury this week indicated relief funds may be used to address unemployment trust issues.

Labor and Workforce Development Secretary Rosalin Acosta confirmed on Friday that states are empowered to deploy stimulus funding through the American Rescue Plan to replenish unemployment insurance trust funds, but did not say if the Baker administration plans to do so or whether it would use federal dollars to mitigate the sticker shock that many businesses face from spikes in the solvency fund assessments.

Holyoke Home Agreement

House and Senate lawmakers early Friday night also announced they have agreed on a consensus bill authorizing $400 million in borrowing for the design and construction of a new soldiers’ home in Holyoke and $200 million in bonds “to increase geographic equity and accessibility related to the continuum of long-term care services for veterans across the state” -- the state has only two soldiers’ homes, one in Holyoke and the other in Chelsea.

“While passing this legislation will ensure that we rebuild and update a soldiers’ home in Holyoke that we can all be proud of, the Senate and House stand committed and focused on building on policies that promote regional access to high-quality veteran services and reflect the changing needs of our veteran population,” Sen. Cindy Friedman and Rep. Joseph Wagner, who led negotiations on the final bill, said in a joint statement.

Friedman and Wagner recalled the deaths of 77 Holyoke Soldiers’ Home residents last year as a result of a COVID-19 outbreak, and predicted the bill if it becomes law, would “ensure that veterans across Massachusetts receive the care they need and deserve, for generations to come.”

The House plans to take up the Holyoke Home bill (H 3770) on Tuesday and has also scheduled tentative formal sessions for Thursday and Friday.

The Senate plans a formal session next Thursday when it’s possible that the measures could emerge for votes in that branch.