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Maine 'Check-Off' Beneficiaries Fight Proposal to End Contribution Practice
02/28/2012   Reported By: A.J. Higgins

For those of us in the midst of tax time, you might notice the check-off box on Maine's tax form that allows a contribution to your favorite non-profit. The list of political parties, wildlife conservation programs or charities that help Maine's neediest residents has grown over time, and that's led to increased processing costs at Maine Revenue Services. Now, one state lawmaker says it's time end the check-off practice, but he's running into a lot of opposition from the special interest groups that benefit from it.

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Every year there are more organizations that seek legislative approval to be listed under the check-off boxes on the Maine income tax form. And state Rep. Gary Knight says enough is enough. The Livermore Falls Republican is co-chair of the Legislature's Taxation Committee, and he says if contribution check-offs can't be eliminated from the tax form, he'd at least like to see their numbers reduced.

"If I were the organization I'd rather have somebody write me a check for $10, $20, $50 or $100 than a dollar check-off," he said. "I just think at the end of the day, they're all going to be better off and we as a state are going to be better off because we're not subsidizing some favored over those who are not favored."

Knight says there has to be a way to gauge whether an organization listed on the tax forms is actually benefitting from the program. Democratic state Rep. Seth Berry, of Bowdoinham, says organizations could be required to demonstrate that they are receiving a certain percentage of their operating expenses from the contribution check-off. He says groups that failed to meet the standard would be taken off the list to allow new groups a chance.

"My revolving door would involve criteria, clear criteria," Berry said. 'You have to actually achieve something, whether it's a minimum number of donations or a minimum dollar amount that you have to bring in."

State Rep. Marilyn Strang-Burgess, a Cumberland Republican, says that organizations should have to prove that they have demonstrated a certain level of support from the check-off program. But she says she's reluctant to raise that bar too high, because Maine organizations already have to pay a significant initial filing fee simply to be included on the tax form.

"As it is now, I believe a new organization that steps into this has to cough up 20 grand, which, I'd say, that's a pretty high price of entry, but that's what you've got now, is 20 grand, and believe me, that will keep most of the little Maine organizations away, so you've already got a bar that's set there," Strang-Burgess said.

About $165,000 in revenue was collected through the check-off process last year, but only about 14,000 Maine taxpayers used the check-off option. Some organizations receive no contributions, while others, such as the Maine Endangered and Non-Game Wildlife Fund, took in more than $30,000.

Former Sportsman's Alliance of Maine Director George Smith says contributions to the so-called "chickadee check-off" wildlife fund would be even more substantial if the state had agreed to return it to a more prominent spot on the Maine tax form, a request that was made more than 10 years ago. "That request was denied faster than a chickadee leaves a feeder when a squirrel approaches," Smith said.

Sharon Secovich of Lyman helped launch the Help Fix Me check-off option that offers low-cost spay and neutering services for pet owners. She says she understands lawmakers need to reign in the list of organizations seeking inclusion on the form and suggests a rotating schedule for check-off recipients.

"After a certain number of years--say three--remove the check-off with the lowest intake and replace it with another, or remove the check-offs that do not collect enough money cover the share of the state's administration costs," Secovich said.

Maine Revenue Services estimates that it costs about $16,000 dollars a year to print each check-off organization on the state's tax forms.



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