Littleton Independent: Leg Passes Bill to Improve Benefits for Vets

BOSTON – The Legislature on Tuesday gave final approval to legislation to enhance and protect benefits of Massachusetts’ veterans and servicemembers. Included in that bill, An Act to Provide Benefits for Veterans and Servicemembers, are improvements in voting rights for servicemembers originally championed in the Freedom to Vote Act, filed by Senator Jamie Eldridge (D-Acton) earlier this year.

“I’m pleased that the Veterans Bill included something I’ve been fighting for:  changes to our absentee voting system to make it much easier for men and women serving in the military to vote. Too often, our cumbersome system has prevented many of our soldiers overseas from having their vote counted. This bill will help ensure that those who are protecting our democracy also have the opportunity to participate in it,” said Eldridge.

The legislation, which was signed into law by Governor Deval Patrick at a Veteran’s Day ceremony on Wednesday, also makes improvements in access to veterans’ services, employment and benefits.

The legislation:

  • Allows Massachusetts residents serving overseas to receive and return absentee ballots via electronic means for federal, state and local preliminary, primary and general elections;
  • Directs the Executive Office of Health and Human Services to study the Commonwealth’s current capacity to provide health care services to veterans, and assess the feasibility of expanding capacity at current soldiers’ homes or establishing additional soldiers’ homes;
  • Authorizes state licensing boards to draft regulations exempting honorably-discharged veterans from requirements or credits towards licensure based on skills accumulated during their military service;
  • Includes a preference in the General Laws for service-disabled veterans for public works projects;
  • Amends the current Welcome Home Bill bonus program, where service members are currently able to obtain a $1,000 bonus for a single overseas deployment, to allow servicemembers who are deployed on multiple tours to apply for up to 50 percent of the bonus upon each subsequent return. This additional benefit will only be allowed while current funds remain available;
  • Creates a Medal of Liberty for the governor to award to family members of servicemembers killed in action or who died of wounds received in action;
  • Allows city and town clerks to provide the list of veterans to the Executive Office of Veteran Affairs and to local veterans’ service officers; And,
  • Establishes a veterans’ hall of fame council to study the feasibility of establishing a veterans’ hall of fame in the Commonwealth.

“Our veterans and servicemembers make the selfless decision to stand between us and danger, and it is our job to recognize, remember and support their efforts,” Senate President Therese Murray (D-Plymouth) said. “This legislation will allow the Commonwealth to ensure that veterans’ and servicemembers’ rights are protected, service is acknowledged and benefits are accessible.”

Senator Kenneth Donnelly (D-Arlington), Senate chairman of the Joint Committee on Veterans and Federal Affairs, said: “This legislation provides a set of new benefits to active servicemembers and veterans, and it is especially appropriate that at this time of year we acknowledge their service to our country. The bill will honor families of servicemembers killed in action, make it easier for active duty members to engage in the electoral process while serving, and add disabled veterans as a group for preference in public works projects. This bill speaks to the invaluable service of the men and women of the armed forces. We are a grateful commonwealth.”

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