New Yorkers have contributed more than $51 million for worthy causes through check-offs on their personal income tax forms, but these funds often sit unused, according to a report issued today by New York State Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli. More than $14 million has accumulated in six check-off funds, with nearly 90 percent of that for health-related causes including breast cancer, prostate cancer and Alzheimer’s disease.
“New Yorkers are generously giving to causes they care about but the money is piling up for some funds,” DiNapoli said. “It is past time to fix the problems that hinder some check-off programs so we can put the money to good use and finance important research and prevention initiatives.”
There are eight causes that New Yorkers can support through personal income tax check-offs including fish and wildlife programs, missing and exploited children efforts, and disease research. The first check-off was created in 1982 to support the state’s Conservation Fund, administered by the Department of Environmental Conservation, for fish and wildlife management.
DiNapoli’s report, coming after recent news reports raised questions about significant problems with the prostate cancer check-off program, found that spending from the six dedicated funds with accumulated balances has declined in the last five years. While $12 million came into the six check-off program during the last five years, only $5.1 million, or 43 percent, has been spent, compared to nearly 70 percent during the prior five years. No spending has occurred out of two funds – the prostate cancer check-off and the volunteer firefighting and EMS fund. Nearly $2.9 million remains unspent in the prostate cancer fund, which was created in 2004; $500,000 has accumulated in the volunteer firefighting and EMS fund, founded in 2009.
The total amount contributed by New Yorkers to the check-off program annually has averaged about $1.6 million, but the annual number of contributions has decreased 61 percent since 1984. The number of contributions peaked in the first full-year of the wildlife check-off at 344,732, and reached a low point in state fiscal year 2012-13 at 134,665 for all check-offs. The $14.6 million remaining in six of the funds at the end of the last fiscal year reflects contributions from taxpayers, transfers from the state’s General Fund, dedicated fees, interest and other revenues.
While the tax check-off funds are subject to the state’s “blanket sweep” budget provisions, under which the Division of the Budget may redirect funds from a special revenue fund to the General Fund, no money has ever been swept from any of the dedicated funds.
DiNapoli made several recommendations to improve the administration and accountability for dedicated tax check-off funds including:
- Revamp the law and identify a new administrative process for the prostate cancer fund;
- Amend laws to drive more prompt use of check-off dollars. The breast cancer and the volunteer firefighting and EMS funds require that money be spent in the year in which they were donated, “to the extent practicable.” This provision, which promotes more expeditious disbursement of fund resources, should be added for all check-off programs;
- Require administering agencies to provide state leaders and the public with justification if funds are not spent, along with a remedial plan to ensure the timely and effective use of the funds;
- Improve the administration of the funds through standardized processes with clear criteria to ensure the most effective use of the funds. Inconsistent spending levels by administering agencies suggest that the funds are not disbursed in a standardized, efficient manner;
- Develop policies for dedicated funds that do not have a defined recipient or specific use, to establish a prompt, competitive process for distribution of the moneys;
- Require administering agencies to report annually on the use of check-off funds, including the award process used, the amount awarded by recipient, and how such funds were used; and
- Identify projected tax check-off fund activity in the Executive Budget submission and the state’s Financial Plan. The inconsistent and incomplete reporting requirements that currently exist for the state’s various check-off programs do not provide needed accountability or transparency.
For a copy of the report, visit http://www.osc.state.ny.us/reports/budget/2014/tax_checkoff_2014.pdf.