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Iowa lawmakers try to fix depleted fund for aiding vets

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Iowa Department of Veterans Affairs

Todd Jacobus, director of the Iowa Department of Veterans Affairs, speaks to a legislative committee at the Iowa Capitol in Des Moines on Wednesday.

DES MOINES — A depleted state fund for emergency financial assistance to Iowa veterans would get a boost under multiple proposals from Iowa lawmakers.

The available funds from the Iowa Veterans Trust Fund ran out — for the first time in a decade — in October. State officials said recently expanded eligibility and increased costs exhausted the funding.

That meant funds were unavailable to veterans who had hoped to use the program to help pay for myriad eligible expenses, like medical equipment, emergency room care, dental and hearing care, emergency housing and vehicle repairs, counseling, unemployment assistance and job training.

The Iowa Commission of Veterans Affairs, housed in the Iowa Department of Veterans Affairs and operates the program, has been forced to reject veterans’ requests for financial assistance.

“It’s pretty heartbreaking to turn away a widow or a veteran who needs a new roof and doesn’t have insurance,” said Carol Whitmore, a commission member from Des Moines.

The commission spent $632,000 in 2019 and $573,000 in 2020. During 2021, in an effort to aid more veterans during the COVID-19 pandemic and in the wake of the August 2020 derecho, the commission spent nearly $1.3 million.

By October 2022, however, the entire available funding from the trust fund was exhausted, and the commission postponed accepting new requests until additional funds became available.

Lawmakers Wednesday started working on potential remedies.

The Iowa Veterans Trust Fund contains $38.6 million, according to the fund’s 2022 report. But that money cannot be spent until it reaches $50 million. Spending from the program comes from an annual $500,000 allocation from the state’s lottery fund, plus interest on the lottery fund, which totaled just shy of $60,000 last year.

A bill in the Iowa House would increase the annual allocation from $500,000 to $800,000. House Study Bill 21 was introduced by Rep. Chad Ingels, a Republican from Randalia who chairs the House’s veterans affairs committee. The state veterans affairs department made a similar request last year, and the bill was approved unanimously by the House but was not considered by the Senate.

But that would only help the trust fund in future years; meantime, the fund remains empty through June 30, the end of the state budget year.

A bill in the Iowa Senate would double the annual allocation from $500,000 to $1 million, and also would immediately appropriate $500,000 for immediate use. Senate File 82 was proposed by Senate Democrats, including Sen. Bill Dotzler, a Democrat from Waterloo.

“As a state, we should never turn away veterans in need, but that’s exactly what’s happening now,” Dotzler said in a statement. “This bill will erase the existing shortfall in the Veterans Trust Fund and help ensure we’re keeping our promises to those who served. We owe it to our veterans to honor their service and meet their needs — especially in emergency situations.”

Rep. Martin Graber, a Republican from Fort Madison, said the House Republican bill could also eventually include an emergency appropriation to the trust fund, or a separate allocation could come via the state budgeting process.

“There are veterans who have bills that aren’t getting paid. So yes, there’s a sense of urgency,” Graber said.

Iowa Veterans Affairs Director Todd Jacobus was at the Iowa Capitol on Wednesday to address state legislators. He said there should be a discussion about eligibility for the program in order to ensure that funds are not depleted again, and that veterans who are truly in an emergency have access to the funds.

“More resources would definitely provide more flexibility,” Jacobus said. “And I really think that we need to re-look at the rules associated with what qualifies an individual for an emergency.”

Meantime, Iowa veterans in need of financial assistance should talk to their local veterans services officials about other options and programs, the state veterans affairs office said.