Checkoffs increase, donations dwindle

Thursday, June 30, 2005

Fifteen different donations are listed on Missouri's tax forms, up from just one in 1989.

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- Although state lawmakers continue to provide a growing array of options for Missourians to make charitable donations on their tax returns, it hasn't resulted in increased overall giving.

In 1989, there was only one tax checkoff allowing Missourians to voluntarily forgo a portion of their state income tax refund. According to the Missouri Department of Revenue, taxpayers that year contributed $462,829 for the Children's Trust Fund, which goes to finance child abuse prevention programs.

By contrast, in 2004 six available checkoffs brought in just $376,345 combined. The amount collected that year, however, was still higher than it was for 10 of the 15 preceding years.

Data for 2005 is available only through April 19. As of that date, Missourians had given $273,280 for 15 different checkoffs.

The checkoffs benefit a variety of purposes, including military veterans' programs, home delivered meals for the elderly and various not-for-profit advocacy groups such as the American Cancer Society, the Muscular Dystrophy Association and the March of Dimes. Taxpayers even have the option of giving a few extra dollars to shore up the state's general fund.

Revenue department spokeswoman Maura Browning said the agency has seen a dilution in the amounts that flow to particular causes as the number of options has proliferated. A case in point is the Children's Trust Fund.

"The Children's Trust Fund started off pretty big but has steadily dwindled over the years," Browning said.

Although it remains by far the most popular checkoff, taxpayers donated just $157,996 to it in 2004, about one-third of what they gave in 1989.

Browning also said new checkoffs typically fail to generate as much revenue in subsequent years as they do in the first year they are offered.

The Missouri Legislature approved at least two more checkoff programs this spring. One provides financial assistance to needy military families with a member serving in a combat zone. The other is to fund lead testing for children.

The sponsor of the Military Family Relief Fund, which has already been signed into law, said he projects taxpayers will donate between $250,000 to $300,000 a year to it -- a range far higher than what the leading existing checkoff has generated in recent years.

State Rep. Jack Jackson, R-Wildwood, said he is confident Missourians' desire to show support for American troops in Iraq and Afghanistan will result in generous giving and doesn't believe his target is overly optimistic.

"I think it will do well because patriotism is very important to the people of Missouri," said Jackson, a retired Marine fighter pilot. "Some of the other programs are important but may not be as important to as many people."

Jackson said it will take a vigorous campaign on the part of elected officials at tax time to generate public awareness and support for the program and its aim to help military families who are struggling financially.

"I think citizens will step up and say 'You think about the war. We'll take care of the home front,'" Jackson said. "We are going to have to make this known so people can be a part of it."

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