SPRINGFIELD — The clock is running on an April deadline to pass a $400 million bond bill that will put the state one step closer to millions in federal funding for a new Holyoke Soldiers’ Home.
The bill, H.64, is slated for debate Tuesday by the Joint Committee on State Administration and Regulatory Oversight, a vaguely named committee whose purview is wide and covers bonds and other financial legislation.
Gov. Charlie Baker has been pushing hard to woo members of the legislature to approve the bill.
“The current Holyoke Soldiers’ Home was constructed before modern design standards for medical facilities,” Baker’s filing bill reads, in part. “The Administration has taken immediate steps to address urgent capital and infection control needs, but we believe a major reconstruction of the campus is necessary for the health, safety, and comfort of future generations of veterans and staff.”
The April deadline comes ahead of another on Aug. 1, for the design phase of the project to be complete — a milestone that will make the project eligible for federal support. While Baker’s administration and advocates for the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home have been working at a feverish pace to get the project done, not all members of the Legislature are feeling the same urgency.
Also bearing down is a March 31 deadline for the Special Joint Oversight Committee on the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home to recommend reforms. The committee was born of the COVID-19 outbreak that claimed the lives of 76 veterans last spring, prompting public outrage and calls for reforms. Lawmakers have hosted six public hearings featuring families of veterans, staff, former administrators and state officials with oversight of the soldiers’ homes here and in Chelsea.
That deadline may be complicated by a shuffling of leadership, however. State Sen. Walter Timilty, a Milton Democrat and original co-chair of the committee, stepped down and was replaced by Sen. Michael Rush, a Suffolk and Norfolk county Democrat.
State Sen. John Velis, a Democrat from Westfield, is the new chairman of the Joint Committee on Veterans and Federal Affairs, replacing Timilty in that post. Velis has been a member of the oversight committee and the most vocal member of the Legislature advocating for a new home.
“We are working tirelessly night and day to ensure that this bond bill is passed expeditiously. We can’t get to a point in our discourse where providing care with honor and dignity to our veterans becomes nothing but meaningless words,” Velis said, adding that he expects the oversight committee will host additional hearings despite the looming deadline.
A new facility with primarily private rooms and other enhancements has become the chief rallying cry of advocates for the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home. The bill must first clear the administration committee before moving on to the Joint Committee on Bonding, then the Committee on Ways and Means before going to the state’s full House and Senate.
While many legislators have gotten behind the project, not all are convinced the price tag is reasonable.
“Maybe there should be a look at what else really needs to be done, for a greater number of veterans across the state,” said state Sen. Marc Pacheco, a Taunton Democrat and co-chairman of the Administrative and Regulatory Oversight Committee. “I’m not saying don’t do Holyoke … not at all; that would be crazy. But whether or not they need $400 million of investment there is a legitimate question.”
Pacheco said that although he is skeptical, he looks forward to learning more about the needs in Holyoke through testimony from his colleagues and others.
Velis said he intends to go to the mat to push the bond bill through.
“The significance of this bill speaks for itself. All of the residents of Holyoke Soldiers’ Home — past, present and future — didn’t hesitate to to act when their national came calling. Now we must do the same for them,” he said.
Pacheco said while he is an advocate for veterans’ services, veterans in his district of southeastern Massachusetts and farther south to the Cape and Islands feel their own sense of neglect.
“I know the governor’s got a bill that’s just responding to Holyoke, but it’s not responding to the statewide need that has existed from quite some time,” Pacheco said.
Pacheco’s co-chairman, state Rep. Antonio F.D. Cabral, a Democrat from New Bedford, also appeared to be on the fence.
“Whenever you get 65 % on anything back from the federal government it’s a good investment,” Cabral said. “But I usually like to hear testimony before I make my position public. I’m not necessarily opposed to the concept and idea.”
The bond bill must pass before the U.S. Veterans’ Administration and other federal agencies will pledge the percentage of funding that is typical for capital projects for soldiers’ homes and other veterans’ facilities.
Since the bill will first debated by the House if it clears committee scrutiny, some representatives are looking ahead.
“I’m optimistic,” said state Rep. Pat Duffy, a Holyoke Democrat newly elected to the Legislature. “It does feel like everyone is pushing in the same direction.”
Duffy cited a last-minute pivot by the Baker administration to concede to Soldiers’ Home trustees and other advocates to increase the number of beds in their proposal.
“I’ll be listening closely to what the governor has to say” at Tuesday’s hearing, Duffy added. “And I certainly plan to testify myself.”
A spokeswoman for the Baker administration said the governor is committed to getting the bond bill passed on or before April 1, to meet the VA’s application deadline of April 15.
This would allow the Division of Capital Asset Management and Maintenance four months to complete the design development necessary to meet the Aug. 1 deadline, she said — a process that typically takes nine months.