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States Let Taxpayers Donate Refunds to Military Families

By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, March 9, 2005 – Illinois led the charge last year when it began letting taxpayers check a box on their state tax returns to donate their tax refunds to families of deployed guardsmen and reservists.

Illinois' example -- which has paid out $2.7 million so far to more than 5,000 military families -- is quickly catching on nationwide. Nine other states now offer similar programs, and 21 more are pushing bills through their legislatures to set up their own programs, many with help from Illinois, according to Eric Schuller, senior policy advisor for Illinois Lt. Gov. Pat Quinn.

Illinois' Military Family Relief Fund, established in 2003, provides $500 grants to help families of the state's lower-paid Guard and Reserve members cover expenses after their family member is called to active duty -- often taking a big pay cut in the process, Schuller explained.

The program also provides grants up to $2,000 for families in financial need due to a military deployment and $2,000 grants to troops injured or killed in combat or as a result of terrorist activity. So far, the state has paid out more than 100 of the casualty-based grants, Schuller said.

To qualify for grants under the Military Family Relief Fund, servicemembers must be in pay grades no higher than O-3 or W-3.

"This program is really well received by the Guard and Reserve," Schuller said. "A lot of them are taking a huge cut in pay, and this is one way the state is showing its support and helping them out."

Among those helped through the program was a Marine reservist who used his casualty-based grant to pay for his family's travel to Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, where he was being treated for serious burns, Schuller said.

In Michigan, Gov. Jennifer M. Granholm established the state's Military Family Relief Fund in October. "There's a tremendous need out there" for this program, Army National Guard 1st Lt. Evalynn Chapp said of Michigan's fund. "Some of our soldiers suffer rough times and need a little helping hand," she said.

Another recipient of the Illinois Family Relief Fund, Marine Corps Reservist Sgt. Josh Horton, learned he had become the father of quintuplets as he was being treated for shrapnel wounds received during a mortar attack in Iraq. In addition to two grants from the Illinois Military Family Relief Fund, Horton received a tremendous outpouring of support from throughout the nation, including 25,000 diapers and a new, five-bedroom house.

In a Feb. 8 press event in Chicago, Horton joined the state's lieutenant governor, who championed Illinois' program, to encourage taxpayers to "check the box" and donate to the fund this income tax season to support other Guardsmen and Reservists.

"Our duty on the home front is to support the families of our citizen-soldiers as they are called to defend our freedoms," Quinn said of the Military Family Relief Fund.

Last year, tax donations raised more than $200,000 for the program, and Schuller said he expects that number to increase this year. The fund also receives money through private donations and fundraisers ranging from lollipop sales to coloring contests. Schuller said some of the state's municipalities have started sending out brochures about the program and details about how to contribute along with their water bills.

Quinn traveled to here last month to meet with other lieutenant governors and members of Congress to encourage every state to create its own Military Family Relief Fund. Schuller said those meetings stirred up strong interest and support.

Last year, the National Lieutenant Governor's Association passed a resolution urging states to ensure that their reserve-component families are provided for during deployments.

"We cannot allow the citizens of our states who are serving their country to fall into financial ruin while they are in Iraq, facing harm ... while they are protecting us," said Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante of California, whose state began its own Military Family Relief Fund in September.

Rhode Island Lt. Gov. Charles Fogarty, whose state enacted its program in July, said there's a tremendous need for the program among deployed Guardsmen and Reservists. "One third of our Guard members make less in the military than at their civilian jobs, and they are worrying about making ends meet," he said.

To help promote the program and encourage other states to join in, Illinois established its Operation Home Front website, which tracks efforts under way around the country. A link from the site spells out exactly what states need to do to set up their own programs.

"We've got the blueprint," Schuller said. "Now all they have to do is follow it."

States with Military Family Relief Fund programs are California, Delaware, Kansas, Maine, Michigan, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Vermont and Wyoming.

In addition, 21 states have introduced legislation to create programs: Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Connecticut, Georgia, Hawaii, Idaho, Indiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania and West Virginia.

The National Guard Bureau is a strong supporter of the efforts. "We welcome the interest and efforts of the citizens of the several states, working with elected officials to support National Guard and military families," said spokesman Mark Allen. "These efforts have a potential to reduce the financial hardships that may occur when a military family member is deployed."

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