Army veteran Wilbur Benson said he probably would have missed out on his Ohio veterans' bonus if a relative hadn't told him about it, and there has been growing concern that perhaps thousands of eligible veterans may still not know that money is available.
Voters in 2009 approved a $200 million bond issue to fund the bonuses meant as a way to thank veterans of the Persian Gulf, Afghanistan and Iraq war eras, and veterans officials have worked to publicize that benefit. But a bill now in the Legislature would use Ohio income tax returns to help locate those veterans and prevent them from missing out on the bonuses up to $1,500.
Democratic State Rep. Connie Pillich, of suburban Cincinnati, said her bill would provide space on income tax returns for taxpayers to indicate whether they, their spouses or dependents were on active military duty during the specified bonus periods. Ohio's tax commissioner would then forward those names, addresses and terms of service to the Department of Veterans Services so it could contact the veterans directly about the bonuses and other potential benefits.
"It sounds like a good idea for reaching veterans like me who may not have heard about the bonuses," said the 43-year-old Benson, of Hamilton, who expects to get about $500 for his service in the Persian Gulf era.
Because basic contact information would be the only data shared, Benson and another Army veteran, Charlene Jorge, said they don't have any privacy concerns.
"Not as long as it's just basic information, so veterans could be contacted," said Jorge, 35, of Cleveland, who received $1,000 for her Iraq service. "I think we need to know who our veterans are."
Veterans officials around the state have no way of determining just how many veterans haven't claimed their bonuses, but said there could be as many as 90,000.
"By taking this small step, we can help link veterans to benefits and services that would help them," Pillich said.
The Ohio Department of Taxation is neutral on the bill. Spokesman Gary Gudmundson said the department does work with other agencies to fulfill legislative requirements including redirecting refunds to people owed back child support, but he believes this would be the first time Ohio's taxpayer base information would be used for direct outreach to taxpayers.
The Department of Veterans Services hasn't weighed in on the proposal, but will monitor it.
"It's an interesting concept," department spokesman Michael McKinney said.
The nonpartisan National Conference of State Legislatures was not aware of any states with pending legislation or laws adding check-off boxes for veterans on their state tax forms, but some states are trying to identify veterans for benefit purposes in other ways, center policy associate Alice Wheet said. Two bills are pending in New York on the veterans' issue: one would create a veterans' clearinghouse to help identify those eligible for benefits, another would require new forms for state and local agencies in health and other service areas to ask whether clients or their family members have served in the military. Those identified would be advised of any available benefits assistance.
A bill passed this year in Oregon instructs that state's Human Services director to share names and addresses of service members and veterans with the state's Department of Veterans Affairs when those individuals make written inquiries about certain benefits, Wheet said. Another bill passed last year directs the Bureau of Labor and Industries to ask individuals seeking its services about their veteran status and share that with Oregon's Department of Veterans Affairs.
Pillich's bill, co-sponsored by three other Democrats, recently had a hearing before the House Ways and Means Committee. Pillich said she isn't aware of any direct opposition, but acknowledges it can be difficult to get a Democratic-backed bill through the Republican-controlled House.
Republican House Speaker William Batchelder had not had a chance to review Pillich's bill, but the speaker will work with the sponsor and the committee "to determine the potential course of action," Batchelder spokesman Mike Dittoe said.
Pillich is challenging Republican State Treasurer Josh Mandel in next year's elections, and both are military veterans.
Mandel is monitoring the bill, spokesman Chris Berry said.
"I hope partisan politics can be put aside to help veterans," Pillich said.
Ohioans currently can identify themselves as veterans on driver's license renewals. The state recently approved a direct mailing to those Ohio veterans with birthdays of 1950 or later in case any qualify for the bonuses.