VENTURA COUNTY STAR EDITORIAL: Bureaucracy thwarts donors on taxes

By the Editorial Board

October 20, 2015

Your personal income tax return presents a superb opportunity for others to raise funds — both the government, which demands every tax dollar you owe, and the do-gooders behind those voluntary checkoff boxes for you to contribute to various causes.

This year, The Associated Press investigated California’s tax-return checkoff donation system and discovered something truly shocking.

Nearly $10 million of the $35 million in charitable donations by California taxpayers was languishing unspent in government accounts at the end of 2014.

The jaw-dropping truth is that some of those contributions never reach the designated charities and flow into the state treasury for general purposes, the AP reported. These failures paint a shameful, textbook-worthy example of bureaucracy run amok — or, perhaps more accurately, not running at all.

So we were gratified when the chairman of the state Senate Government and Finance Committee, in response to the AP’s report, immediately pledged to have his committee staff examine all such state accounts that receive checkoff contributions.

“This is just embarrassing. It’s unacceptable,” said the chairman, Sen. Bob Hertzberg, D-Van Nuys, a former state Assembly speaker. “People expect their money to be spent for these important purposes, and these delays (are) not explainable to me.”

Other states have comparable voluntary tax-form contribution opportunities, but California’s is the largest with 36 funds included on its forms in the last decade. Lawmakers have a special fondness for the program because donations are voluntary, giving politicians a chance to say they helped a good cause without drawing down public funds.

But the lawmakers failed in their oversight duty and left distribution of those private contributions to a bureaucracy that was unaccountable, or at least was ignorant and impotent: officials say part of the problem is that public agencies sometimes lacked specific authority or instructions to do anything with the funds.

That may help to explain the mess the journalists uncovered: After reviewing 10 years of records for 29 funds that collected a total of $35 million since 2005, the AP found almost $10 million remained at the end of fiscal year 2014.

In one instance, $278,000 raised for asthma and lung disease research reverted to the state’s coffers because neither the Legislature nor the distributing agency put them to use.

Here’s another example: In 2005, then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed legislation creating a checkoff fund that raised $237,000 for colorectal cancer screenings. “Not a single dime has been spent on cancer prevention,” the AP reported. “The fund fell through the cracks with a 2007 reorganization of state health agencies,” which say they never received authority to spend the money.

We call on state officials and administrators to move decisively and quickly to correct these unacceptable failures, in order for state government to effectively carry out its duty to honor the wishes of those who contributed to these good causes.

One can only imagine the high toll of these repeated failures in the minds of taxpayers the next time they are invited to make a checkoff donation.

Many worthwhile causes are active in our community and state, and fundraising frequently is difficult under the best of circumstances. The last thing they need is government stepping in to mess up things in its peculiar way.

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