SPRINGFIELD – Every year, Illinois taxpayers have the option to give part of their refund to a variety of charitable causes when they file their taxes.
The checkoff funds have come and gone over time, competing for donations that amounted last year to 26 cents per tax return.
There are a dozen choices for the 2003 tax year, up from seven the year before, said Illinois Department of Revenue spokeswoman Debbie Best.
On the tax forms due this April, asthma and lung research, leukemia treatment and education, Lou Gehrig's disease research, military family relief, and World War II veterans' memorial funds will join last year's list of checkoff opportunities: wildlife conservation, child abuse prevention, Alzheimer's disease research, assistance to the homeless, breast and cervical cancer research, prostate cancer research and multiple sclerosis assistance.
That makes the highest number of checkoff options in the state's history.
Tax checkoffs are established by the General Assembly with the approval of the governor. Each new checkoff law they enact sets up a special state fund dedicated to that particular cause, and designates an appropriate agency to distribute grants from that fund.
For instance, the Illinois Department of Public Health oversees the prostate cancer research fund, while the Illinois Department of Veterans Affairs is in charge of making grants from the World War II veterans' memorial fund.
The laws creating the funds also outline who can qualify for the grants and what types of uses are allowed for the money.
The first income tax checkoffs appeared on state tax forms in 1983. That year there were three causes, and the limit to donate was up to $10 out of an individual's refund. Those filing jointly could donate up to $10 per cause, for a total of $30. The cap on donation amounts was eliminated in 1990.
Now, any amount of $1 or more can be donated through tax checkoffs. The amount is either deducted from the taxpayer's refund or added to the amount due.
In the first year tax checkoffs were introduced, the three causes (veterans' home, wildlife conservation and child abuse prevention) raised nearly $940,000 combined.
In tax year 2002, checkoffs raised a total of nearly $1.5 million, but the money came from a very small percentage of the 5.7 million returns filed.
That year, only one out of every 100 individual income tax forms filed included donations to checkoff funds, and the average contribution to a fund was $11, said Mike Klemens, a spokesman for the Illinois Department of Revenue.
Of those who did participate in the checkoffs, most chose to donate to two of the seven funds offered, for an average total contribution of $20 per return, he said.
Over the years, nearly 40 different tax checkoff funds have been created, but only wildlife conservation and child abuse prevention have remained on state income tax forms since 1983.
In 1986, the state enacted a law requiring that checkoffs attract at least $100,000 a year in order to be listed on the following year's tax return. Most do not meet that threshold and are dropped after only a year or two.
All of the funds listed on the tax year 2002 forms managed to break that $100,000 threshold, but it is unclear how they may fare with so much competition this tax year.
The last time the number of checkoffs reached double digits was in tax year 1991, with 10 funds, only four of which managed to earn enough money to stay on the list for the following year. One new fund was added by lawmakers, making five options available for tax year 1992.
Best would not make any predictions as to how many of the 12 checkoffs would reach the $100,000 threshold this year.
"It's hard to tell," she said. "We don't know that."
If history is any guide, at least some will not make it, and supporters will have to work hard to ensure their favorite fund has enough donations to survive.
Eric Whitaker, state public health director, has used his position to urge Illinoisans to continue to support the income tax checkoff funds targeting disease research that his agency oversees.
"Illinois taxpayers have been very generous in giving to these funds, and this year they have some additional choices," he said in a written release. "I hope they remain committed to these important causes, for each dollar donated brings us closer to improved treatment options and to finding a cure."
Lt. Gov. Pat Quinn helped start the new asthma and lung research checkoff fund and has been a strong supporter of the new military family relief fund, which helps military families with costs like rent, utility bills and day care when a parent is called to active duty.
It was started in July with $5 million in state money and has received more than $80,000 in donations from individuals and businesses. The hope is that continued funding will come from the income tax checkoff designated for military family relief.
Quinn said he was optimistic that all 12 of the checkoff funds on this year's tax forms would reach the $100,000 threshold, despite the increased competition.
"I'm not that concerned because they cover a variety of subjects, and people have different interests," he said.
Quinn said the tax checkoff is the most efficient way to donate to multiple causes, and he planned to encourage the public to contribute to all of them, not just one particular favorite.
"I'd like to see them all make the grade," he said. "I think we have a lot of generous people in Illinois."
You can reach Kate Clements at (217) 782-2486 or via e-mail at email@example.com.