A bill that would tighten management of an Indiana grant program meant to help struggling veterans is advancing in the Legislature, thanks to broad bipartisan support following revelations that a state agency awarded some grants to its own employees.
The legislation sponsored by Rep. Randy Frye unanimously passed the Indiana House's Veterans Affairs committee, which the Greensburg Republican chairs, on Tuesday. The bill now appears likely to pass the full House before Monday's deadline to send bills to the Senate, The Indianapolis Star reported.
The measure would move the decision to award grants to veterans who are employees of the Indiana Department of Veterans Affairs away from that agency and shift it to the independently appointed Indiana Veterans Commission.
That commission would use the same newly prescribed income requirements for agency employees as for all veterans. It would also consider appeals for requests by any veteran over the agency's lifetime cap of $2,500 in funds from the Military Family Relief Fund.
The Indiana Department of Veterans Affairs' leader, James Brown, resigned in December following reports that he had awarded money to veterans who worked under him. He denied wrongdoing.
Brown's resignation came after The Indianapolis Star and WRTV-TV questioned the agency's administration of the fund, which is supported by fees from specialty veteran license plates.
The Star's investigation found that middle-income employees at the agency had an inside track on the emergency assistance grants. That investigation and a subsequent state audit also found that the program was poorly managed, with some applications languishing for months while others were processed even though they were incomplete.
Dennis Wimer, who became the agency's director following Brown's resignation, said he supports Frye's legislation. Wimer, who was hired Jan. 28, said he's been thoroughly reviewing the agency and wants to ensure the grant program is properly administered.
The agency adopted rules in January for the grant program that make clear that the funding is for low-income veterans facing financial hardships.
The bill essentially puts those new rules for agency employees and the $2,500 cap into state law. He said he wanted the rules incorporated into Indiana law because rules are "something that can be changed," Frye said.
He said he's backed off two provisions originally in his bill: a total ban on grants for agency employees and a lifetime grant cap of $2,500. He said he reconsidered those ideas after talking to key stakeholders.
"I believe this needs to be fair and equitable for all veterans," Frye said.
Retired U.S. Army Brig. Gen. Jim Bauerle, the former chairman of the Indiana Veterans Commission, said he hopes the bill can be amended further to clarify certain responsibilities of the commission, those of the agency director, grant qualifications and an appeals process.
"We think there are some areas that could be improved and we've got Rep. Frye's promise to work with us in the Senate," he said.