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Veterans upset about state's proposal to dip into military license plate revenue

Military Family Relief Fund under scrutiny since 2018
Military license plates
Posted at 11:23 AM, Jan 20, 2021
and last updated 2021-05-17 11:00:18-04

INDIANAPOLIS — The Indiana Department of Veteran Affairs (IDVA) is looking to keep a chunk of the revenue generated from military license plate sales and use the money for administrative costs.

The proposal is not sitting well with veterans who say the money should be used to help veterans in need.

WRTV Investigates has tracked problems within IDVA for more than two years.

Hoosier veterans in need of help with food, housing, utilities, medical services and transportation can turn to IDVA’s Military Family Relief Fund — money generated from the sale of military license plates like Army, Navy, Marines and Support Our Troops.

In 2018, WRTV Investigates uncovered IDVA gave out Military Family Relief Fund benefits beyond the $2,500 limit including to IDVA’s own employees.

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Veteran and advocate Lisa Wilken spoke out about the misuse of the fund two years ago, and was shocked to learn about the new proposal.

House Bill 1264 would allow IDVA to use up to 15% of the Military Family Relief for paying administrative costs associated with the operation of the fund.

"We see those as donations, because Hoosiers pay a higher cost for those specialty license plate to support our troops all knowing that extra money goes into our Military Family Relief Fund to help veterans in need,” Wilken said.

The Military Veterans Coalition of Indiana wrote a letter to Gov. Eric Holcomb expressing concern about taking away 15%.

“This fund is exclusively used to help honorably discharged Hoosier Veterans who meet eligibility requirements established in Indiana Code that are in need,” read the letter. “This equates to over $270K that would not be available to assist over 110 Hoosier Veterans.”

Brigadier Gen. James Bauerle is opposed to using the Military Family Relief Fund for administrative costs.

“The citizens of Indiana don't want their money going to administrative costs,” Bauerle said. “We are talking about a significant amount of money. The fund takes in $1 million to $1.2 million a year in license plate revenue, so 15% is a very substantial amount of money."

Retired Navy nurse Lori Turpin said the license plate revenue was not intended to be a “slush fund.”

"I think it sets a very bad precedent,” Turpin said. “The people who buy these license plates, myself included, think that $15 per plate goes to grants to actually help veterans not to fund staffing or projects for a state office."

Turpin and other veterans are also concerned about a provision in House Bill 1264 that would allow veterans who received other than honorable discharges to receive benefits.

"For those of us who got honorable discharges, it minimizes the importance of an honorable discharge," Turpin said.

"I don't think the citizens of the state, and members of our coalition, don't want to pay for someone who didn't serve under an honorable condition," Bauerle said.

"We want to make sure all honorably discharged veterans receive benefits in Indiana, but we do not believe we should be lowering our standards,” Wilken said. “That would include discharges of anything other than honorable and bad conduct discharges. So those are discharges where the service member has been asked to leave the military either through an administrative or court martial process and given a discharge with less than honorable character of service.”

Wilken said the state should find other ways to pay for IDVA’s administrative costs rather than dipping into license plate revenue.

She suggested IDVA use its regular budget or cut the $910,000 spent annually to help five veteran service organizations like the American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars, AMVETS, Disabled American Veterans and Vietnam Veterans of America.

"I see that as an opportunity for IDVA to pull some of that money back that they're passing through the agency to use for IDVA if they need money, rather than pulling it from the Military Family Relief fund,” Wilken said. “I believe there are other options other than tapping into the Military Family Relief Fund.”

Veterans we talked with say they agree with some parts of House Bill 1264 like removing the requirement for wartime service to get relief funds, and they also support the removal of a requirement that you have to have 12 months of military service to get benefits.

"We want to make sure that our state is as veteran supportive as we claim it to be," Wilken said.

WRTV Investigates reached out to IDVA director Dennis Wimer to request an on camera interview, but we have not yet heard back.

We have also reached out to the Governor’s office about the coalition’s letter, and we are still waiting to hear back.

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