Although officially created by lawmakers almost two years ago, a state-sponsored assistance program for military families -- funded partly by taxpayers on a voluntary basis -- is only just beginning to come together. Bureaucrats in the Louisiana Department of Social Services have been slow to claim the program as their own, even though the law places oversight firmly in their laps. Thousands of dollars have been held hostage while a bureaucratic mini-drama plays out.
The Legislature created the Louisiana Military Family Assistance Fund in 2005 to award need-based grants to families of Louisiana National Guard and Reserve forces called to active duty since the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. It also benefits Guard units tapped for natural disasters such as hurricanes. In all, more than 11,800 men and women are eligible for the program, as are roughly 12,000 of their dependents.
No one is holding his or her breath. A report on the program was due to the Joint Legislative Committee on the Budget on Jan. 1, but that deadline was missed. Today, the program's administrator can cite barely any timeline or benchmarks.
It's simple enough to donate to the program. For the past two fiscal years, taxpayers have had the option to contribute to the cause through a check-off box on state forms for individual income, corporate income and corporate franchise tax returns. Private donations have also been collected. The fund provides bridge money, or emergency cash, to families who have lost a source of income due to military service by a breadwinner.
Applications can be for something as simple as new tires or rent -- the initiative was engineered to reach as many people as possible and concentrates on the smaller complications of life in the Guard. However, more substantial allotments are also available for casualty cases. A lump sum payment of $2,500 is supposed to be offered to the families of soldiers killed in action, missing in action or those who have been taken prisoner.
Gov. Kathleen Blanco finally named an oversight board for the fund, as required by law, earlier this year. The board met for the first time this month. Roughly $10,150 is sitting in the fund, based on records released by the state Treasurer's Office. However, board members were told at their March meeting that upwards of $100,000 has been collected, according to Sen. Reggie Dupre, a Democrat from Terrebonne Parish who authored the original legislation and serves on the board. Dupre says there may be a chunk of private donations out there that haven't been added to the total yet.
Cleo Allen, a spokesperson for DSS, the department currently administering the program, refused to release any numbers or shed further light on how the program is progressing. But this much is sure: no guidelines have been drafted for disbursing the money. A call seeking comment from Blanco two weeks ago was never returned. Allen says the 2005 hurricanes stretched the process out longer than expected, causing the department to have to wait for more money to come in. "We did experience some delays with Katrina and Rita," Allen says, "but remember that the whole point is moot without the money."
All state departments faced unique challenges in the wake of the 2005 hurricane season, but it's interesting to note that one of the board's first official actions, as prescribed by law, was to find an independent administrator to take over the program from DSS. Dupre says there may be an ethics opinion in the works to weigh in on DSS' involvement, but the department hasn't shown him that it is overly enthusiastic about the program. "Reading between the lines, I think DSS wasn't sure that they were the ones to kick this thing off, but it falls under the law," Dupre says. "We are all tied together at the hip."
The original legislation was part of Blanco's 2005 policy package, had a slew of coauthors and faced no opposition. The governor described it as an "opportunity to add something substantial to ... prayers and support." It is modeled after a program launched by Illinois Lt. Gov. Pat Quinn, and at least 14 other state have similar initiatives. A dozen or more are considering such a program. Illinois lawmakers jump-started that state's program with a $5 million gift and raised an additional $1 million through check-offs and corporate donations.
State Sen. Joe McPherson, a Democrat from Woodworth, tried to have Louisiana match dollar-for-dollar what the fund raises annually, but that proposal was shot down amid talk in 2005 of tight budget years ahead. Based on interviews and bills pre-filed for the spring regular session, which begins April 30, there doesn't appear to be any movement to dredge the topic up again.
That's shameful. If there were ever a year to spread money around -- lawmakers have more than a $2 billion surplus and elections are just around the corner -- this would be it. Money from candidates' campaign accounts can be channeled into the fund as well, which would be a wiser investment in Louisiana than negative television commercials.
Dupre says the oversight board will discuss hiring a third-party administrator, possibly a nonprofit, at its April meeting. The administrator will determine and send awards to military families who show a financial need. A commitment was made to Louisiana's military families two years ago. It's time to pay up. "We should have been done with this by at least mid-2006," Dupre says. "This just should have gotten off the ground sooner."
- Tracie Morris Schaefer
- The Legislature created the Louisiana Military Family Assistance Fund in 2005 to help families of Louisiana National Guard and Reserve forces tapped to help after natural disasters and those called to active duty since the 9/11 terrorist attacks.