The New York State Legislature had a great idea in 1982: Create a quick, easy, painless way for income-tax payers to contribute to a worthy cause by letting them designate a small amount of money from their state tax refund as a contribution.
It was called a “check-off option,” and in the case of the inaugural effort, it was to give money to the Return a Gift to Wildlife program.
Each check-off would deliver $1 or more to the State Department of Environmental Conservation to help fund programs that would help preserve and protect wildlife. Great idea.
The second check-off, in 1995, was even better, for this region: It would send donations to maintain and operate the Lake Placid Olympic Training Center, created after the state takeover of the Olympic facilities after the 1980 Winter Games.
Since then, six more check-offs have been established, allowing taxpayers to give money for cancer research, remediating and preventing exploited children and other unquestionably honorable causes.
The trouble is that the money isn’t being spent in a timely, responsible manner by the recipient agencies.
According to State Comptroller Thomas B. DiNapoli, over the past 10 years of the arrangement, collections are way ahead of expenditures and getting worse.
For the first five years, receipts totaled $11.5 million and expenditures only $8 million, or 70 percent of money taken in, the Comptroller’s Office said in a news release. Over the past five years, receipts climbed modestly to $12 million, but expenditures plunged to $5.1 million, or 43 percent.
On top of that, the number of contributions has declined 60.9 percent since 1982, indicating that perhaps the public sees less value in such a program.
DiNapoli is calling for reforms in the program “to ensure that funds in these dedicated accounts are committed to their intended purposes as expeditiously as possible. If they are not spent, administering agencies should provide the executive, the legislature and the public with an explanation as to the reason and develop a remedial plan to ensure the timely and effective use of the funds.”
Specifically, the comptroller has asked for the law to be revamped and new administrative processes to be instituted. Require more prompt use of check-off dollars and require justifications when use lags.
He suggests donations to a more general and less specific target so agencies can competitively show their need and intentions for the funds.
He also recommends that filmy reporting procedures among the agencies be stiffened to identify all funds taken in under check-off and how they were or will be spent.
The public has a right to know whether their donated money has done any good and how. We applaud DiNapoli’s efforts toward this end.