State Taxpayers Providing Relief to Military Families

New York Times

State Taxpayers Providing Relief to Military Families

Taxpayers can donate their refunds in many states to the homeless, to victims of child abuse, to protecting endangered species or to a group of needy people whose taxpayer-financed salaries do not always make ends meet – military families.

Illinois led the way last year when it added a Military Family Relief Fund to the list of charities on its state tax forms, collecting $204,000. Five more states have followed suit, and at least 21 more, including New York, have introduced legislation to do so next year.

As of the end of last week, the funds had collected slightly more than $400,000 for the 2004 tax year, to be distributed in grants of about $500 to a few thousand dollars. For the most basic grants, the only requirement is that a family member has been activated in the fight against terror for 30 days or more.

The money is intended to help cover property taxes, car repairs, rent, equipment not supplied by the armed forces, or anything that might be a reach for the families of National Guard members and reservists struggling with the domestic hazards of wartime, including loss of income, long separations, disability or sudden death.

The measures are part of a movement by states to fill what they perceive as a void in federal support for military families. Several states have created tax breaks, increased death benefits, added tuition assistance – even provided discounts on hunting licenses and free admission to state parks. The relief funds rely mostly on citizen largess, though contributions to charity are tax deductible and reduce federal and state revenues.

“It’s because Congress has failed to set a safety net for military families that lose heads of household,” said Governor Bill Richardson of New Mexico, which recently added $250,000 life insurance policies for its National Guard soldiers to augment the $12,000 federal death benefit. “And the states are stepping in with humanitarian initiatives.”

New Mexico is one state on the verge of voting on whether to put a check-off box for military family relief on its tax returns. The check-off usually allows taxpayers to give all or part of their refund to their choice of listed charities.

Lt. Gov. Pat Quinn of Illinois, who pushed for the relief legislation his state enacted and has since visited several other states to help them set up their own funds, said the idea of giving to soldiers’ families was not new. His idea borrowed heavily from a Civil Relief Society formed by the New York National Guard to help service members during the Depression, Mr. Quinn said.

“We don’t see this in any way as charity but rather a token of gratitude from the men and women of Illinois to people who have answered the call of duty,” he said.

Under the Illinois guidelines, any family with a National Guard member or reservist deployed since Sept. 11, 2001, is eligible to receive $500. Those who are wounded in action or whose income dropped by at least 30 percent when they went from civilian to military pay can get an additional $2,000.

Pamela Bout and her four children are among the 5,000 families who have received grants of at least $500. Ms. Bout, a school bus driver in Gurnee, Ill., whose husband, Robert, is a Navy reservist deployed last July, is navigating single-parenthood, a new health insurance policy and the anxiety of her husband’s service in the Middle East.

“I’ve had to deal with so much since he’s been gone,” she said. “Cars breaking down, the dishwasher breaking down – everything that could happen since he’s left, has happened. These little things add up.”

Were it not for help from the state, Ms. Bout said, she would not have had a Christmas meal or gifts last December.

In part because of their low costs, the relief funds sail through state legislatures, lawmakers said. But the support of these funds varies. Michigan has raised the most, at $250,000, and Delaware trails the group with $900. Receipts in the other states with check-off boxes this year – California, Maine, Illinois, Rhode Island and South Carolina – fall in between.

In Illinois, the military fund received about 11 percent of the $1.8 million raised through check-offs on returns last year. The relief fund ranked fourth in popularity, after wildlife, child abuse prevention and breast cancer research. This year the relief fund has accumulated $55,600, compared with $38,600 in the same period last year, Mr. Quinn said.

In Rhode Island, the fund has received almost as much, $11,900, as the other six charities combined. In California, the military families fund ranks in the middle in popularity, far less than research in Alzheimer’s disease but on par with food pantries.

Part-time soldiers on long full-time assignments do not always face financial crises. About a third of families gain income when a husband or wife is deployed, roughly the same number that lose money, according to a survey by the National Military Family Association.

Peggy Gomez of Berwyn, Ill., said that managing a family alone could in itself be stressful and costly. Her family’s income increased a bit when her husband, Sgt. First Class Hector Gomez, was deployed with the National Guard. But Ms. Gomez had to contend with broken storm windows, a leaky bathtub and wind damage to their roof, she said.

It was the first time she had handled the family finances, and she turned to Mr. Quinn’s office for help. His office prodded her insurer to respond more quickly on the home repairs, she said, and gave her a grant that went toward property taxes.

Jeremy Alford contributed reporting for this article.

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