Cash-strapped causes hope for taxpayer generosityWritten by Associated Press | | firstname.lastname@example.org
Ohioans won’t be forced to pay higher taxes if Republican Gov.-elect John Kasich’s promises hold true. But could they be persuaded to pay more by choice?
The voluntary income-tax checkoff — where taxpayers donate a portion of their anticipated refund to a good cause — has become a carefully studied option for cash-strapped groups bracing for the most painful budget in recent Ohio memory.
The same is the case in other states, where lawmakers are considering the voluntary rather than forced tax option for causes from cancer and wildlife, to veterans and even schools.
Three checkoffs now appear on Ohioans’ tax forms, for military injury relief, endangered wildlife and natural areas and preserves. If backers are successful next year, more could be on the way.
Kasich has pledged to support a planned income tax cut in the two-year budget he must present by mid-March, despite an estimated $8 billion budget gap. That means deep cuts ahead even to vital state programs, such as social services, prisons, public schools and universities.
For relatively smaller programs, like the Ohio Breast and Cervical Cancer Project, money could dry up altogether. The first pot of state funding for that program — $5 million for the two years beginning in July 2007 — was already cut to $1.6 million during the last budget cycle.
“Believe me, we understand this whole budget deal. We’re trying to work within the confines that are out there,” said Pam Mascio, advocacy chair for the Northeast Ohio Affiliate of Susan G. Komen for the Cure. “But here you are fourth in the nation in mortality (from breast cancer) and you’re going to cut funding? It’s tragic, it really is.”
The Komen organization estimates it could raise from $300,000 and $600,000 a year from taxpayers willing to support its screening and biopsy program through a checkoff. At $90 for a mammogram and $125 for a biopsy, that’s a lot of money.
The amount the group could raise may depend on the competition — which is steep.
In May, so many tax checkoffs were surfacing that Tax Commissioner Richard Levin cautioned lawmakers about approving too many — noting that lengthening the list may thin taxpayers’ donations to the programs as they spread their contributions.
Ohio Department of Taxation spokesman John Kohlstrand said taxpayers with the smallest refunds — say, $2 or $3 — are often the ones who participate.
About 40,000 taxpayers contribute to each of the three existing checkoffs annually. In 2008, they donated a combined $1.4 million out of the roughly $1.5 billion in refunds the state paid.
Ted Davis, a state worker from Columbus, said he typically donates to one or more of the checkoff programs at tax time. He said he would consider giving more for the right cause.
“It sounds worthwhile to me,” said Davis, 61. “It depends which ones they are, I guess, whether or not the person has any interest in that particular area.”
Looming competition over checkoffs hasn’t stopped advocates around the Statehouse.
The Ohio Historical Society has lobbied for five years for a tax checkoff — not for its own budget, but to fund a matching grant program for local historical organizations. And the society intends to try again next session. The checkoff could generate an estimated $200,000, said lobbyist Todd Kleismit.
While not a government agency, the Historical Society is a nonprofit corporation with state responsibilities such as, archiving public records and maintaining the state library.
Some legislators balk at giving checkoff status to a nonprofit because they fear its operations wouldn’t be as accountable to the public. That same argument has come up in debate over other cash-strapped nonprofits that work hand-in-hand with state government, such as the Red Cross or Ohio Association of Second Harvest Food banks.
State Sen. Kirk Schuring said the breast cancer checkoff is run through the Ohio Department of Health and has all the necessary checks and balances. He plans to pursue the proposal when he moves to the Ohio House next year.
“I’m not saying it’s a perfect solution, but certainly it will help maintain this valuable program that helps the underserved population and those that have no health care benefit at all, those who are most at risk,” he said.
Michael Farley, a lobbyist for the Red Cross, said he doesn’t begrudge any group that seeks a checkoff. But he believes the Red Cross, a nonprofit that doesn’t receive state funding, has a legitimate argument given its response to emergencies and disasters along with other efforts.
“If we didn’t perform the services we do, the state would have to support them,” he said.