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Indiana veterans voice concerns about Senate bill

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On the surface, Senate Bill 316 sounds like something all veterans could rally behind. Essentially, the bill would expand the number of Hoosier veterans who qualify for the Military Family Relief Fund, an emergency service that helps veterans in need with necessities, such as rent, electric bills and mortgage payments.

In order to cover more veterans, however, the bill, authored by Sen. Chris Garten, R-Sullivan, would change the definition of “qualified service member,” allowing individuals with less than an honorable discharge to qualify for the $2,500 fund. Incidents leading to a less than honorable discharge include security violations, the use of violence and conviction in a civil court.

“Senate Bill 316 will help more Indiana veterans become aware and be eligible for emergency financial assistance from the Military Family Relief Fund,” Joseph Devito, outreach director for the Indiana Department of Veterans Affairs (IDVA), said in an email. “The bill removes several current requirements and restrictions that eliminate too many Indiana veterans.”

Devito said the bill is “fully supported” by the Indiana state chapters of Disabled American Veterans, the Veterans of Foreign Wars, The American Legion and the National Guard Association of Indiana.

However, not all veterans are on board with the changes.

“One of my main concerns about this bill is allowing anyone with other than honorable discharge to apply for funds,” Army veteran Roger Williams said. “This isn’t what it was intended for, and it shouldn’t be. A less than honorable discharge could be for crimes like child pornography, theft, anything you can think of. That’s not who the citizens of Indiana should be paying to support.”

It isn’t just this change in definition that worries Williams and United States Air Force veteran Lisa Wilken. They’re also concerned about Section 2 of the bill, which would allow the IDVA to appropriate up to 15% of the relief fund monies — funded by sales of “Support Our Troops” license plates — to cover administrative costs. IDVA, which is in favor of the bill, was previously found to have misused these funds.

In 2019, an Indianapolis Star investigation found several ineligible IDVA employees received at least $40,000 in grants through the Military Family Relief Fund. A state audit confirmed the Indianapolis Star’s reporting, stating “the potential misuse of funds was part of a broader problem of poor management at the agency.” Following the report, IDVA Director James Brown resigned after roughly six years in his post.
Williams and Wilken worry the bill would allow the IDVA to misuse the funds as they have in the past. Williams said the IDVA would also benefit financially from allowing those with less than honorable discharges to apply for funding.

“There’s two benefits,” Williams said. “This fund has a total of $3.75 million in it, so it supplements their budget. Secondly, when they get more veterans in, it opens up avenues for more funds to come in federally, so they’re just looking at getting more funds from both the federal government and tax dollars from Indiana residents.”
Devito said there will be oversight of how the funds are used.

“The use of fees collected from Indiana specialty license plates for administration fees is a common practice,” Devito said. “… The Veterans Affairs Commission, made up of veterans and legislators appointed by the governor, will determine how the funds can be used. … Regular reporting of expenditures will be required.”

However, both Wilken and Wilson say the committees overseeing the handling of funds are made up of members of IDVA and other entities which support the bill.

“You’re not going to bite the hand that feeds you,” Wilken said.

Neither Williams nor Wilken believe Hoosier veterans are aware of the bill, and in their opinion, that’s by design.

“Rank and file veterans across the state don’t even know this is happening,” Wilken said. “And when they find out, they’re angry.”

Both veterans cite the vague language in the bill — including no confirmation on what a new definition for “qualified service member” would be — as a chief concern.

A Senate committee voted Feb. 2 to send the bill for appropriations — meaning the budget will be examined — before the bill is heard on the Senate floor. Democratic

Sen. J.D. Ford was the only “no-vote” at the committee hearing.
Ford could not be reached for comment.

According to IDVA, nearly 550,000 veterans live in Indiana. The national Office of Veterans Affairs estimates roughly 54,000 of those individuals are minorities. Demographics are not broken down into specific racial groups.

Wilken and Williams believe all veteran voices — not just those working for the state — should be heard when it comes to SB 316.

“I’m a wife, a mother and a veteran,” Wilkin said. “My opinion as an individual counts, and I want to be sure the legislature does what’s best for the veterans here in the state.”

Contact staff writer Breanna Cooper at 317-762-7848. Follow her on Twitter @BreannaNCooper.

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