State arts council could lose the OK to raise money via tax forms

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The California Arts Council is in jeopardy of losing its recently won ability to solicit donations via state income tax forms.

Beginning last year, filers could donate to the state’s chronically underfunded arts grant-making agency by checking off a box on their tax return, then adding the amount they wanted to contribute to their payment or subtracting it from their refund.


The arts council received $164,298 that way during 2011 -– not a negligible amount for an agency with a budget of only $5.2 million. Donations came from 16,580 taxpayers, for an average contribution of $9.91.

But the 2010 legislation that gave the arts council its checkoff box says it will disappear from future tax forms unless it generates at least $250,000 this year, then rises each subsequent year by at least the rate of inflation.

The early returns for 2012 are not encouraging. According to data on the Franchise Tax Board’s website, checkoff contributions totaled $25,820 in January and February, down from $26,112 a year ago. To keep its box, the arts council needs at least a 52% increase, not a marginal decline.

Last year, more than half of the arts council’s donations from tax returns were posted in April and May, but contributions trickled in during other months as well. About 10% of taxpayers file after the regular deadline (which is April 17 this year), said Franchise Tax Board spokeswoman Denise Azimi.

The arts council is one of 18 causes with checkoff donation boxes on this year’s tax forms; last year there were 15, with the arts council ranked 11th in donations. The causes that received less were maintenance of the California Firefighters Memorial at the state Capitol in Sacramento, a fund that supports advocacy for senior citizens (to which only people 65 or older can contribute), and funds that help families of police killed in the line of duty and support youth programs of the Police Activities League.

The top recipients of tax-checkoff donations were protection of rare and endangered species ($605,220) and emergency food for families ($598,157). The four other funds that received $400,000 or more were for child abuse prevention and research into cancer, breast cancer and Alzheimer’s disease.

Since 2003, when its funding was cut drastically, the California Arts Council has become less a traditional taxpayer-supported government agency than a government-sponsored charity. It gets about $2.3 million from taxpayers -– divided about equally between state tax revenues and a federal grant from the National Endowment for the Arts -- and about $3 million from motorists who opt to pay $50 or $40 extra for special license plates designed by artist Wayne Thiebaud (the lower amount is for renewals; for new plates the cost of making them is factored in). The arts council last month launched a marketing campaign featuring celebrity backers that aims to put 1 million arts plates on the road, tripling the annual proceeds to $39 million.


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-- Mike Boehm