In 1977, Colorado was the first state to introduce “checkoff” boxes on the state tax return to facilitate contributions to nongame and endangered wildlife preservation, known as the “chickadee checkoff” on some state income tax forms. Since then, the practice of using state income tax forms for charitable contributions has flourished and is now used by the 41 states with a broad-based income tax. In 2003, the Federation of Tax Administrators (FTA) counted 220 checkoff programs. By 2015, this number has nearly doubled to 410 programs.
The number and type of checkoff programs each state offers are as varied as the states themselves. Oregon offers the most robust list, with 30 programs included on its 2015 tax return. However, four additional states follow closely behind, each offering more than 20 checkoffs. West Virginia and Nebraska are the only states that offer just one checkoff program (Child Abuse Prevention and Nongame Wildlife Preservation, respectively). Since the FTA’s last survey of checkoff programs conducted in 2003, states have added an average of five check-off programs to their personal income tax forms. The greatest growth occurred in Louisiana where the number state of checkoff boxes grew from four programs in 2003 to 24 programs in 2015.
Some checkoff programs are unique to a specific state. From 2000-2014, Wisconsin’s income tax form included a Green Bay Packer’s Football Stadium checkoff box to help raise funds for the stadium’s $295 million renovation project. California has included a Sea Otter Fund checkoff since 2007. The Olympic training center in Lake Placid, New York, home to the 1980 Winter Olympics, still holds a place on New York’s check-off contributions. Additionally, while not a checkoff contribution, Maine gives its residents the option to purchase state park passes in the check-off portion of its tax return.
While certain states boast a variety of programs, other states hold the spotlight for the most generous checkoff donations. In tax year 2014, Californians donated approximately $5.3 million to 19 different programs. North Dakotans contributed $60,000 to two programs. In most other states, taxpayers donated less than one million dollars to their checkoff programs.
Although state income tax check-off contributions have grown in popularity since their inception in 1977, they create a number of administrative challenges for state governments. These include determining processes to add or remove checkoffs from state income tax forms, as well as higher administrative costs for processing forms. Twelve states now list their check-off contributions on a separate form, which increases the processing time, cost, and the possibility for errors.
For many Americans, April 15 still brings a strong feeling of deadline anxiety, but maybe we can breathe a little easier knowing that charitable giving is as simple as checking a box.
Source: Federation of Tax Administrators 2003 Survey of State Income Tax Checkoff Programs ( www.taxadmin.org )