BOSTON >> The Senate on Thursday unanimously passed a bill aimed at increasing veterans' access to public housing and providing other supports for current and former military service members and their families.
"It is our duty as American citizens to honor our dead, but it is equally important to honor our living veterans for their service, and this bill does both of those things," said Sen. Michael Rush, a West Roxbury Democrat who co-chairs the Veterans and Federal Affairs Committee and serves in the Navy Reserves.
The bill (S 2325) gives eligible veterans a preference in elderly and disabled housing in all communities, regardless of residency. It also requires housing authorities to exclude a disabled veteran's federal disability compensation from the income level used to calculate rent.
Also included in the bill are property tax exemptions for veterans rated 100 percent disabled from service-connected blindness, and for surviving spouses of soldiers, sailors and National Guard members who died because of an injury or illness suffered during active duty.
The House unanimously passed its version of the bill (H 4285) in May. It's up to branch leaders to now agree on a single bill.
Both pieces of legislation create an Office of Veterans' Homes and Housing within the Department of Veterans Services. In a divergence from the House bill, the Senate added language to its bill excluding the day-to-day operations of the Holyoke and Chelsea soldiers' homes from the oversight of the new office's director.
Sen. Donald Humason, a Westfield Republican who sponsored the soldiers' home amendment, said that the facilities stand apart from other housing because they offer long-term care.
"The Soldiers Homes in both Holyoke and Chelsea provide both critical care and a community that is essential for the well-being of our veterans. This bill provides the reassurances veterans deserve that their boards of trustees shall remain independent, and that day-to-day operations will remain under the control of superintendents who work directly with them," Senate President Stanley Rosenberg, who is in Europe this week, said in a statement.
The Senate added on 13 other amendments before passing its bill, including a measure filed by Sen. Jason Lewis that would expand the eligibility for Gold Star Families license plates to any next of kin who has a Department of Defense-issued Gold Star lapel button and letter of approval.
Currently, Lewis said, only certain family members are eligible for the plates, which recognize relatives of a military member who died while serving active duty. Lewis said he was prompted to file the amendment after hearing from a constituent whose uncle died as a prisoner of war in North Korea. Though the nephew was the veteran's only next of kin, he was ineligible for the plate he wished to display to honor his uncle's sacrifices, Lewis said.
The Senate also adopted a Sen. Thomas McGee amendment expanding eligibility for the Massachusetts Military Family Relief Fund. McGee said on the floor that his amendment would allow families of military members who died as a result of training accidents, post-traumatic stress disorder or combat injuries to receive assistance.