House approves veterans bill, pandemic policy extensions

Senate passes childcare expansion


WITH JUST 24 days left to pass significant legislation until the House and Senate hibernate until early 2023, more is being added to the Legislature’s joint to-do list than is being crossed off of it.

The House on Thursday added two issues to the pile of matters that lawmakers will try to address before the July 31 end of formal sessions: a bill extending some pandemic-era policies that diverges dramatically from the Senate’s version of that legislation, and a broad veterans bill that not only takes a different path than the Senate but would also expand legal gambling to include slot machines at veterans’ organizations.

Those bills join a bevy of others that are jockeying to become law by the time this session wraps up, including the overdue fiscal year 2023 state budget, energy and climate policy legislation, access to mental health care, reforms to the state-run veterans’ homes in Holyoke and Chelsea, a significant update to the state’s legal cannabis laws, and more. The Senate also Thursday passed a bill related to early education and child care, and legislative leaders announced their intention to pass a tax relief measure this month while both branches were in session Thursday afternoon.

Pandemic Policy Extensions

With little discussion Thursday afternoon, the House passed legislation further extending some pandemic-era policies and reshaping how citizens will be able to access public meetings.

The House’s 20-page policy extensions bill, which was released Thursday morning, differs dramatically from the three-page version of extension legislation that the Senate passed Tuesday.

Most significantly, the Senate approved extending policies dealing with remote or virtual participation and the ability for assisted living nurses to provide basic health services to residents until Dec. 15, 2023 but the House bill would limit the extensions to March 31, 2023. The House bill also includes provisions specific to notaries public and real estate property closings that were not in the Senate bill.

Rep. Antonio Cabral said notaries public will be allowed to continue operating as they have since the pandemic started and that the House bill includes new language and “some reforms in that process” that would take permanent effect after the pandemic-related extension expires.

Before passing the bill on an unrecorded voice vote, the House adopted a Cabral amendment that he said would make hybrid meetings — in which both meeting participants and public observers can attend either in person or remotely — a permanent feature for local, regional and state bodies. He said the House bill, with his amendment, “makes permanent the flexibility permitted under the Open Meeting Law during the COVID-19 state of emergency while keeping the law’s goals of access and transparency.”

“There is no reason to move backwards from this new era of public access. Now that we have experienced the benefits of remote access to public meetings, we cannot go back,” Cabral said.

For local and regional public bodies, at least one-third of the members would have to be physically present at the meeting location for the others to participate remotely but the requirement for state bodies would be that just one member of the body is physically present at the meeting location. Cabral said audio-only meeting access would not be allowed and that video would be required.

“There is no reason to move backwards from this new era of public access. Now that we have experienced the benefits of remote access to public meetings, we cannot go back,” Cabral said.

The authorization for virtual public meetings is set to expire next Friday and the House bill would extend the current virtual meeting landscape until March 31, 2023, at which time the new rules included in Cabral’s amendment would take effect.

After the House’s vote, a group that includes the ACLU of Massachusetts, Common Cause Massachusetts, Disability Law Center, League of Women Voters of Massachusetts, Massachusetts Newspaper Publishers Association, MASSPIRG, New England First Amendment Coalition, Boston Center for Independent Living, and New England Newspaper & Press Association said it was happy that lawmakers appreciate “the importance of remote access to public meetings.”

“Across the Commonwealth, remote access to public meetings has significantly increased public participation in state and local government, and has lowered longstanding barriers for people with disabilities, people with limited access to transportation, and people with work and family obligations,” the group said in a statement. “We urge the legislature to ensure that the final legislation includes a permanent requirement for hybrid public meetings.”

Rep. Mike Connolly said on Twitter before Thursday’s passage of the bill that he was pleased the House was going “to extend renters’ rights information and notice requirements for tenants facing eviction through 2024.”

“Ultimately, we need to make this modest protection permanent, and go further by enabling local rent stabilization!” the Cambridge Democrat wrote.

Veterans and Military Family Issues

It was a unanimous vote of the House’s 154 members Thursday afternoon to pass an omnibus veterans bill (H 4978) that markedly expands the scope of Senate-approved legislation (S 2559) dealing with professional licensing and education for military families. Like the Senate version, the House bill would overhaul professional licensing procedures in an attempt to help military families relocated to Massachusetts integrate more easily.

The House also included provisions that seek to educate veterans about the impacts of exposure to open burn pits, extend in-state tuition rates at public colleges and universities to military members stationed in Massachusetts and their families, and to create a “Purple Star” system for K-12 public schools that support military families.

“After 20 years on active duty in the Army, I know that this bill helps not only the veterans but their families and the sacrifices a family makes; it’s not an easy chore when they’re sitting at home while their solider — male or female — is gone for six months or a year and they’ve got to take care of everything at the house,” Rep. Kelly Pease of Westfield said on the House floor.

The House bill also borrows from the sports betting bill that representatives passed a year ago and includes language to create a new type of gaming license — a “limited slot machine license” — that would allow veterans’ organizations like American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars posts to install slot machines for their members. That provision is unpopular in the Senate and Gaming Commission officials have raised concerns that it would make the job of overseeing gambling in Massachusetts much harder.

That aspect of the House bill also appears to be unpopular with Gov. Charlie Baker. His office pointed out Thursday that while the House seeks to expand gambling in Massachusetts, the veterans bill it passed Thursday did not include language related to the three compacts that Baker proposed that the Bay State join in order to further streamline the license transferring process for military spouses or families.

The governor’s office suggested the decision not to pursue the compacts could end up costing Massachusetts.

The Air Force has evaluated Barnes Air National Guard Base in Westfield as a potential home for the new generation of F-35A Lightning II fighter jets, which would be a boon to the state’s six military installations that together are responsible for about $13 billion in annual economic activity and account for about 57,000 jobs.

Baker’s office said Thursday that license reciprocity and the ease of transferring licenses is one of the factors that the Air Force is considering as it nears a decision on where to locate the new F-35s. The governor met in Washington, D.C., late last month with Secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendall, U.S. Rep. Richard Neal and other members of the Congressional delegation to discuss Barnes.

Though Baker’s office seemed to imply that the House bill did not go far enough towards helping secure the new fighter jets, Sen. John Velis of Westfield said that what the House passed Thursday “will help the Commonwealth meet criteria used by the Department of Defense when determining basing assignments, like the current F-35 Fighter Jet conversion being considered for Barnes Air National Guard Base in Westfield.”

The House bill, according to Speaker Ronald Mariano’s office, would require the Division of Occupational Licensure, the Department of Public Health and Massachusetts boards of registration to “accept a military spouse’s application for licensure or notify them of what criteria they were not able to meet within 30 days of the application” and would establish “a military spouse certificate to be issued by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education Commissioner to military spouse teachers that meet certain requirements.”


Senators voted unanimously on a sweeping reform bill aimed at aiding child care and early education providers, fortifying the pipeline of workers entering that field, and helping more families access a costly service vital to their economic success.

After a string of speeches laser-focused on the importance of connecting more Bay Staters with quality, affordable care, the Senate approved a bill (S 2973) seeking a years-long expansion of subsidies for early education, pay and benefits for workers in the field, and permanent grants for child care providers.

“Very few bills we debate have the potential for impacts as great as this bill,” said Education Committee Co-chair Sen. Jason Lewis.

The legislation senators sent over to the House would over several years more than double the income eligibility to receive some degree of aid to pay for early education and child care, a step Lewis said would make services more affordable for hundreds of thousands of families.

Under current law, only households who earn 50 percent or less of the state median income — equivalent to about $65,626 annually for a household of four — qualify for subsidies. The bill would eventually raise that threshold to 125 percent of the state median income, a level representing about $164,005 annually for a household of four.

The reforms would prioritize families who need money the most and would seek to distribute money equitably across different regions of Massachusetts, backers said.

“We are helping to ensure an equal start to life. That’s how I think about this bill,” said Sen. Jo Comerford, a Northampton Democrat.

Other sections of the bill would move to stabilize providers in the volatile field by creating a permanent framework for Commonwealth Cares for Children, or C3, stabilization grants and would support workers with scholarships, loan forgiveness and a new “career ladder” outlining compensation tiers.

Senators were mostly in agreement over the course of Thursday’s session, but Sen. Sonia Chang-Díaz made clear after voting for the measure that she views it as “a long way away” from what families and child care workers need.

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Chris Lisinski

Reporter, State House News Service
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“This bill expresses a vision, but it makes no commitment to realize it. That’s why Ways & Means has no real cost estimate for the legislation — because it doesn’t cost anything,” Chang-Díaz wrote in a statement she posted to Twitter. “The bill creates three commissions and advisory councils, calls for eleven reports, and describes an aspiration, but does not ensure any new child gets a seat in preschool or any new educator gets above poverty wages.”

“This bill is definitely better than nothing. But better than nothing is not the standard we should be holding ourselves to on Beacon Hill,” she added.