BOSTON (State House News Service) — Legislation filed by Gov. Charlie Baker would make the occupational licensing process easier for military families transferring into Massachusetts, but it could also be key to convincing the federal government to station its newest F-35 fighter jets in Westfield, supporters said Tuesday.
Baker's bill (S 2542) would enter Massachusetts into a series of interstate compacts that aim to make it easier for military spouses who work in licensed fields like physical therapy or psychology to begin working more immediately when their spouse and family is transferred or stationed in Massachusetts. The Senate in October unanimously passed similar legislation filed by Sen. John Velis.
"This legislation will affect the strategic basing decisions for all our services and all our components going forward. And when we talk about preserving a mission like Natick Soldier Systems Center, or preserving a mission like Hanscom Air Force Base, or expanding those missions here in the commonwealth, it's important that we set the strategic conditions to grow and to encourage [the U.S. Department of Defense] to make investments here," John Beatty, executive director of the Massachusetts Military Asset and Security Strategy Task Force, told the Joint Committee on Veterans and Federal Affairs. "I think this legislation and the legislation that Senator Velis teed up combined are a great starting point for sending a very strong message to DOD that we understand what's important to them and we're taking steps to address it."
Massachusetts has six military installations -- Hanscom Air Force Base, Natick Soldier Systems Center, Joint Base Cape Cod, Fort Devens, Westover Air Force Reserve Base and Barnes Air National Guard Base -- that together are responsible for about $13 billion in annual economic activity and account for about 57,000 jobs, Beatty said.
But as the military changes its approach to put more emphasis on technology after 20 years of ground war in the Middle East, Beatty suggested that some military installations around the country could be scaled back, merged into others or eliminated. The task force he leads was created in 2012 and has for years been keeping an eye on the possibility of a new base realignment and closure effort.
"There is a lot to lose here," he said. Beatty added, "There are going to be some tough choices that the Department of Defense and each of our services are going to have to make in the coming years. There's already a lot of ruminations about an FY23 and FY24 defense budget that's going to be painful for the Army and for the Air Force. We don't want to be at the wrong end of those decisions."
The retired U.S. Army lieutenant colonel said he views the governor's bill as "part of a greater plan to make sure that our bases are protected, number one, and then to have an opportunity to grow in the next 12 to 24 months."
The latest push to codify expedited license review for military spouses -- the Veterans and Federal Affairs Committee heard Velis' bill in July and advanced it favorably out of committee -- comes as the Air Force evaluates Barnes Air National Guard Base in Westfield as a potential base for the new generation of F-35A Lightning II fighter jets and as the U.S. Space Force reviews Hanscom Air Force Base in Bedford.
In August 2020, the Air Force conducted an analysis of the accommodations made for military family members on public education and professional licensure around the country as it tries to encourage more service members to remain in the military longer, Beatty said. Massachusetts was given an "amber" designation on a red/amber/green scale, he said.
"When we received the Air Force's assessment as amber, it clearly got our attention," Beatty said. He added, "That scorecard also coincided with the strategic basing decision for the F-35 fighter at Barnes Air National Guard Base out in Westfield. Just coincidentally, that decision was ongoing when the scorecard was released. So it was very clear to us that the release of this scorecard and this ultimate, this impending decision about the F-35 was going to be important."
Velis, a Westfield Democrat who co-chairs the committee and is an active member of the Army Reserve, said he thinks the best approach is a combination of the governor's bill and his bill that passed the Senate. He urged his fellow lawmakers to keep the issue top of mind and called for quick action to codify military family licensure policies into law so that Massachusetts does not run the risk of seeing its relationship with the military be diminished.
"I, for one, believe that if we don't move quickly on these things, there is a very real risk that we in the commonwealth could lose out," he said. "And by lose out I mean whether it's the F-35s in my district in Westfield, whether it's in Hanscom and the Space Force, but really in every one of our districts, we run the risk of losing to Louisiana, Texas, Minnesota and fill in the blanks. So in my humble opinion anyway, I think this needs to be a top, top, top priority."
Beatty said a decision on where the new F-35 fighter jets will be based is expected in the spring of 2022.
Written by Colin A. Young/SHNS