State charitable 'checkoff' options help taxpayers share refunds

Child-abuse-prevention funds, wildlife-preservation funds, funds that benefit the homeless or raise money for medical research: All of them rely on big-hearted taxpayers willing to donate a portion of their income-tax refunds to charity.

Income-tax checkoffs raised $27.3 million in 41 states in 2000, according to the Federation of Tax Administrators (FTA).

While that was up about $2 million over 1998, fund directors this year - in a time when private and corporate giving has dropped sharply - are trying to remind the public that a checkoff donation can go a long way.

Checkoff Colorado, a new 10-group coalition, began an advertising blitz last month. Posters and commercials by Gov. Bill Owens remind taxpayers to give.

"This year it's perhaps more important than it's been in the past because I think the other sources of revenue that they've had have either been cut or reduced," says Checkoff Colorado spokesman Jon Pushkin.

Tax-checkoff programs have grown from 103 in 1989 to 179 in 2000, according to Ron Alt of the FTA. All 41 states with a broad-based income tax have at least one checkoff. Some might have too many. The problem tends to be that as you get more and more checkoffs, "it starts to get difficult to [fit them] on the tax return, and it makes it more complicated," Mr. Alt says.

Virginia has 21 checkoffs on its tax return, from the Chesapeake Bay Restoration Fund to the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation. California and Alabama have 11 each. Pennsylvania has five checkoff funds. In 20 years, the Wild Resource Conservation fund has generated $6.2 million. The Korean/Vietnam Memorial fund has collected $215,000 in five years.

Checkoffs first appeared in 1972, when the federal government allowed taxpayers to earmark part of their taxes for a presidential campaign fund.

In 1977 Colorado started the first state checkoff program to use refund money.

In Vermont, the Nongame Wildlife Fund is the most successful of the state's three checkoffs, collecting about $100,000 a year.

"Vermont people, I think, feel that fish and nongame wildlife adds to the quality of life here," says Lilla Lumbra of the Nongame Natural Heritage Program.

The average taxpayer who checks off gives $10, the Federation of Tax Administrators found. Studies put the average participation rate of eligible taxpayers between 2 percent and 5 percent.

Not all state programs are successful. None of Arkansas's four checkoffs, for example, has ever garnered more than $13,000, says Tim Leathers, deputy revenue director.

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