FEC Plumps for Presidential Campaign Tax Checkoff

UNITED States taxpayers who are eager to have a say in just how Uncle Sam puts part of their payment to use can have a small voice. With $1 per tax filing, that is.

This week, the US Postal Service sent out the 1991 federal income tax forms to 110 million American households. And the first question in the lengthy 1040 federal booklet asks whether the taxpayer wishes to contribute $1 of her or his taxes to the presidential election campaign fund.

"Checking yes or no does not change the tax. Nor does it affect the taxpayer's refund," says Joan Aikens, chairwoman of the Federal Election Commission (FEC). She describes the presidential campaign check-off as "a unique funding system. It is the one time you can exercise some control over how one of your tax dollars is actually spent."

The tax checkoff is the major source of financing for presidential elections. President Bush, the six Democratic candidates, and one independent have received or will receive a combined $6.4 million this week, in their first installment of federal funds. A second payment is expected to be made in early February. FEC-certified candidates are entitled to the funds, dispensed by the Treasury Department, only if they meet certain criteria. To qualify, candidates must limit their spending, and party nominees in the general November election may not accept any private contributions from individuals or political organizations. They must all submit financial records for audit.

According to the FEC, Congress established the Presidential Election Campaign Fund in the early 1970s for three reasons: to reduce candidates' dependence on large contributions from individuals and groups, to help equalize the financing for candidates in the general election campaign, and to liberate candidates from constant fund-raising and give them more time to focus on issues.

The voluntary checkoff has netted $32.3 million in receipts for all of 1991 (checked off on the previous year's tax forms), compared with $32.5 million in 1990. FEC officials say that 19.8 percent of tax filings in 1989 included yes votes for $1 contributions; in 1990 it was roughly 19.5 percent.

But the money is running out for the next presidential election year. In 1996 "under any scenario we can come up with, there will be a shortfall," says Ms. Aikens. "The dollar checkoff is not indexed for inflation," she says. By 1996, she estimates, "there may not be any public money available for the primary election campaigns, not because of lack of taxpayer participation, but because of the effects of inflation."

Aikens says the FEC sends recommendations to Congress every year, advising Capitol Hill on possible legislative means of ensuring that the Treasury can dole out money to presidential candidates. The FEC recommends either indexing the checkoff amount to inflation, supplementing the traditional checkoff amount with congressional appropriations, or transforming the campaign fund into a budgetary entitlement.

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