Virginia coffers hold $1,500 of taxpayer generosity this year.
As disputes rage in Richmond over proposed fees to balance the troubled state budget, some citizens want to send even more than they have to into a fund that collects voluntary giving to the state.
But not many.
Contributions to the “Tax Me More Fund” have hovered between $1,000 and $1,700 most years ever since lawmakers created it in 2002, according to the Virginia Department of Taxation. Exceptions include the fund’s first year, when taxpayers contributed $6,602, and a low point in 2006 when $19.36 was donated.
Republican Del. M. Kirkland Cox, of Colonial Heights, first proposed the fund to make a point about raising taxes on others without being willing to pay more themselves. If he intended to test the generosity of legislators, he seems to have made his point.
Only two state legislators are among the five donors who have allowed their names to be made public. Del. Rob Bell, R-Charlottesville, and former state Sen. D. Nick Rerras contributed to the fund, although how much they gave is not public.
Since its inception, the fund has collected $12,887.04, with the largest single donation being $5,000. Except for 2003, no more than two donations have been made to the fund each year.
Cox said the history of the fund has sent the message he intended.
“The Tax Me More fund was a great chance for tax increase proponents to put their money where their mouth is,” Cox said. “The fact that only 1,500 dollars was contributed [this year] speaks volumes.”
At least seven other states have set up similar options for taxpayers who don’t think their bill is already high enough, according to Sandra Fabry, executive director of the Center for Fiscal Accountability—an arm of the anti-tax group Americans for Tax Reform.
Like Virginia, most states ask citizens to mail in checks which are then deposited in the state’s general fund.
But in Massachusetts, taxpayers are asked on their tax return to choose between paying 5.3 percent or 5.85 percent in income taxes. The choice was approved in 2000 as part of a voter-approved income tax reduction, according to ATR.
The voluntary giving accounts started cropping up about 10 years ago. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee challenged tax proponents in 2001 to contribute to his state’s general fund, while around the same time Massachusetts, Kansas, New Hampshire and Virginia were setting up their own donation funds.
Still, most people don’t know such funds exist, Fabry said. And believers in limited government who think officials need to streamline operations don’t crop up among the pool of donors, she said. She said that for these citizens, the usually low balances of “Tax Me More” funds simply show that so-called tax supporters won’t crack open their own wallets.
“It is certainly a tool to highlight the hypocrisy of those who support higher tax increases because most of the time those who say we should have tax increases don’t want to pay themselves,” Fabry said.
But hypocrisy is not the target of all lawmakers who suggest “Tax Me More” funds. This year, legislators in Maine are considering a bill allowing citizens to donate to state social services. Sponsor Terry Hayes, a Democratic representative, has said she wants to find a compromise between finding more funding and not raising taxes on those who can’t afford it.
The federal government has accepted donations into its general fund since the 1960s, according to McKayla Braden, spokesperson for the Bureau of Public Debt.
While donations for most years reach $2.5 or $3 million, $21 million was donated in 1994, she said. The largest individual gift totaled $3.5 million, given in 1992.
The large donations often come from wills, Braden said. Once or twice a year, she receives an envelope of quarters from a child who’s been learning about the national debt in school. She said she’s always surprised to see money orders mailed in by those who are obviously short on finances.
“I think people really felt like maybe they were very lucky in life,” Braden said. “We’ve gotten some from people you know couldn’t afford to send it.”
Prompted by the request of a citizen who asked to donate electronically, the bureau made it possible to donate online for the first time in January, Braden said. She always expects to receive the most donations between November and January, when people are in the gift-giving mood.
“When people are thinking about their taxes and giving gifts, that’s when we often get people giving $15,000 or $20,000,” she said. “We could get two or three a week like that, and that’s really nice.”