- Associated Press - Thursday, March 13, 2014

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) - About 26,000 of Indiana’s veterans will soon be eligible for grants from a state fund that helps veterans facing tough times pay for food, housing and other expenses for themselves and their families.

Gov. Mike Pence signed a measure into law Thursday that expands access to the state’s Military Family Relief Fund to all Indiana veterans who served in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as members of the U.S. armed forces or National Guard.

Indiana currently restricts veterans’ eligibility for the grants to three years after their military service is over, but that limit will end July 1.

Pence noted before signing the bill that the legislation had been passed unanimously by both the House and Senate.

“That’s a statement about how much Hoosiers cherish our men and women in uniform,” he said to applause from Indiana National Guard members who filled an auditorium at the Indiana War Memorial for the ceremony.

Pence said the legislation will ensure that veterans who served after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks “have access to resources to assist them and their families when they fall on hard times.” He noted that veterans have a higher unemployment rate than the general population.

Funding for the military relief fund comes from the sale of Indiana’s “Hoosier Veteran,” ”Support Our Troops” and “POW/MIA” license plates.

The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Allen Paul, said there’s currently a total of about $8.5 million available for veterans in the relief fund and a second fund that provides it with additional money.

Paul, R-Richmond, said access to the funds had not been expanded for a few years and it was time to open it up for more veterans to apply for grants to cover food, housing, utilities, medical services and other essential family expenses.

“The fund kept growing, and I wondered, ‘What are we saving this money for?’ People are putting the money in this for use and yet the veterans weren’t drawing anything out of it,” he said.

Each qualified veteran or a relative can receive grants of up to $5,000 per year if the Indiana Veterans Affairs Commission, which reviews grant applications, determines they’re experiencing economic hardship.

The new law requires the commission to set a maximum dollar amount that can be awarded in a given fiscal year to ensure that there’s always a healthy balance for future requests.

Paul said he expects the panel to decide that the fund’s balance cannot dip below about $1.5 million.