By Colleen Quinn
State House News Service
BOSTON — A plan to put state dollars behind development at Massachusetts military installations could protect bases against future closings, a major general told lawmakers Wednesday.
The proposal, which seeks $177 million in borrowed funds over five years, would invest in capital projects at all six military bases in Massachusetts, and gives flexibility for where and how the money can be spent. Massachusetts is the only state to propose a bond bill for all of its bases, Major General Scott Rice said.
Rice, adjunct general of the Massachusetts National Guard, told House Committee on Bonding members that flexibility for how the money is spent on projects is a key part of the equation.
Opponents of the legislation (H 3334) said the state is writing a “blank check” to the military, and questioned why lawmakers do not give the same flexibility to transportation projects or other taxpayer-funded investments.
Members of Massachusetts Peace Action said they would prefer to see state money spent elsewhere.
Cole Harrison, executive director of Massachusetts Peace Action, said the military should be asked to spell out what they are going to do with the money.
“They won’t disclose what they want to spend it on, therefore you can’t evaluate whether it is in the Commonwealth’s advantage or the taxpayers’ advantage,” he told the News Service after testifying against the plan.
Military and state officials are bracing for another round of base closings expected as the Department of Defense implements $480 billion in cuts over the next decade. DOD has repeatedly requested another round of Base Realignment and Closures. Although Congress did not authorize BRAC last year, it is widely believed to pass within the next few years, according to Rice.
“Clearly DOD has said we are shrinking. When we shrink there is no doubt we need less infrastructure,” Rice said.
In the past, DOD made decisions about which bases to close largely on a facility’s age and usefulness, as well as the installation’s mission. In recent years, DOD officials have placed more emphasis on the “synergy” between the base and the community. Any investment Massachusetts makes in its facilities could be viewed favorably, he said.
Rep. Antonio Cabral, co-chair of the committee, cautioned the degree of flexibility the plan calls for is unprecedented in a bond bill, and requested the military and the Patrick administration report back to the Legislature on the progress of projects.
“What you are saying to us is trust us,” Cabral said.
He said lawmakers want to give that trust, and then quoted President Ronald Reagan in a phrase the president used often in regard to U.S.-Soviet Union relations “trust, but verify.” He asked Rice if military officials would submit a report to the Legislature.
“I think it would reassure the members we are not just giving you carte blanche,” Cabral said.
Rice said he was in favor of reporting back to the Legislature, saying military officials are enthusiastic about future projects and would be happy to share details.
“This is a whole of government approach, and we’ve got to do this together,” Rice said.
One of the first projects, if the bill passes, will be the completion of runway infrastructure improvements at Barnes Air National Guard Base in Westfield, Rice said. Barnes Air National Guard provides 24-hour protection for the Northeast region of the country.
There is precedent for state spending supporting military bases, Rice said.
In 2005, a $261 million bond bill to expand missions at Hanscom Air Force Base and Natick Soldier Systems Center passed. The military never went forward with the missions and none of the money was spent.
Carol Coakley, another member of Peace Action, said she was concerned with Massachusetts congressmen supporting the spending as a way to maintain jobs in the state. The military estimates the plan will help retain 46,500 jobs, create construction jobs, and provide opportunity for new military jobs.
Coakley said she would like to see “unneeded” bases closed, and “see the money go to state and local human needs.”
“To see all six of these installations should be supported by taxpayer money makes me a little nervous,” she said.
The Public Safety Committee approved the bond bill in June. The House Bonding Committee is expected to vote on the bond bill later this month.