When we’re filing out our income tax returns, most of us are focused on how much money we’re going to get back. But when it comes to the Vermont state income tax return, there is an invitation to donate some of your refund to a good cause.
Line 29C of the state income tax return asks Vermonters to contribute to one of four funds. Known as the “tax checkoff” funds, these dollars go first to the Department of Taxes and then to their designated program.
There are four funds collecting these voluntary contributions, including the Non-Game Wildlife Fund, which has been an option on Vermont tax returns since the mid-1980s. In the following decades, the Vermont Children’s Trust, Vermont Veterans Fund and Green Up Vermont have been added, with the latter joining the tax form in 2015.
Funds are added to the tax forms by legislation, and the idea came from other states that had instituted similar funding mechanisms.
Steve Parren, of the Vermont Department of Fish and Wildlife, oversees the Wildlife Diversity Program within the Wildlife Division of his department. He says the funds that come from state tax returns are important revenue for his program.
“Initially, we had no other money,” he said of the time when the tax checkoff was created. Now, the state tax contributions range from $80,000 to $100,000 per year.
Last year, explains Steve Gomez, who handles financials for the same department, tax form contributions totaled $106,000 — a “really good year,” says Gomez.
The Non-Game Wildlife Fund receives funding from other sources, too, such as half of the revenue from sales of the state’s wildlife conservation license plate — a specialty plate that requires an additional $26 per year to register. The fund typically receives about $70,000 from the license plates, plus earned interest on an estate donation that was invested in a trust account; that income was $20,000 last year. Gomez says the fund also receives random donations from the website or mailed-in checks. Quick math shows the tax contributions are slightly more than 50 percent of the fund’s annual income.
The tax contributions are even more important, however, when they can be multiplied. Parren said the state-generated money can be used to provide a required match in funding for a federal grant he receives for the program, helping him leverage the federal funds at roughly a 3-to-1 ratio.
“That means for every dollar we get (from the tax contributions), I can leverage about three federal dollars,” he explains. “These funds end up being very important because they multiply what we can do.”
The fund supports any activities that benefit non-game species, such as turtles, freshwater mussels, frogs, and the natural communities and landscape connections they rely on. While Vermont is rich in natural resources, there are pressures like development, loss of habitat quality, and climate change that are threatening natural systems.
Parren says his department often has to triage projects and make decisions about which lands or populations will be protected. This is where his ability to multiply funds by using tax contributions to match the federal grant comes in handy.
“If I can take your donation and triple it, a lot more can get done,” he says, especially in times when money for wildlife tends to get scrapped from the state budget before money for schools, children and health care.
When Vermonters elect to contribute money to the Vermont Veterans Fund, the money is redirected through grants to provide services to veterans living in Vermont, including help with transportation, housing and long-term care. That can include transportation to medical appointments, the grocery store, or the pharmacy; assistance with filing taxes; or the creation of hundreds of “move-in kits” that provide toiletries and cleaning products to veterans receiving new housing after being homeless. Some of the funds also support an annual summit that connects 300 to 400 veterans with services.
In addition, the funds support the effort to collect Purple Hearts, a U.S. military decoration awarded to those wounded or killed in service. Often these awards are auctioned or sold, but these funds are helping to reunite them with their rightful owners.
The amount of money received by the Vermont Veterans Fund has varied over the past four years — between $55,025 in 2015 and $71,600 in both 2016 and 2018 (these funds were donated from the previous years’ income tax refunds).
The Veterans Fund also receives money from private donations, as well as a portion of sales of Bernie’s Beans, a specialty roasted coffee bean made by Capitol Grounds in Montpelier.
“This is another avenue to get support to people in need,” said Robert Burke, director of the Office of Veterans Affairs. “It’s especially important in a rural state with low population density and an aging veteran population, where it can be harder to get direct services, like transportation or affordable housing, to veterans.”
When Vermonters elect to contribute to the Vermont Children’s Trust, the money goes to programs that support children from birth to age 18. Tax contributions are one of four sources of funding that support their programs; other sources are the state general fund, a federal grant, and the Vermont Children’s Trust Foundation, which receives private donations and raises money through a popular children’s winter event called the Polar Express.
Last year, the Vermont Children’s Trust received $65,000 from the tax checkoff, explained Fagan Hart, executive director of the organization. Normally, the fund receives an average of $58,000 per year, but last year there was some overlap in the allocation of funds from the previous year, so the number was a bit higher.
As with the Veterans Fund, the money is used to make grants to new and expanding programs that are benefiting children. Changing Perspectives, for example, is a current recipient of funds that visits classrooms and creates curriculum to help teachers talk to children about people living with disabilities. About 15 percent of Vermonters have a disability, and the curriculum is now in about 70 schools around the state.
Creative Lives is another current recipient of funds from the Vermont Children’s Trust. This is an after-school program in Thetford that used grant money to offer a summer program last year. Kids were able to participate in activities they might not have at home, like connecting with nature, learning photography, and learning mindfulness skills that can translate to increased focus in the classroom. The work done by participating kindergarten through fifth-grade students mitigates the loss of skills over summer vacation, such as reading.
Hart says every dollar they receive from the tax contribution is important, whether a Vermonter gives $1 or $1,000. “We make this money count,” she says.
Development Director Amanda Ahmadi added, “Our mission is that every Vermont child has the ability to reach their full potential, and that’s what these programs are supporting. Healthy kids who are connected to their community is a good thing for Vermont.”
The most recent addition to the organizations to which Vermonters can contribute is Green Up Vermont, a nonprofit that oversees the annual Green Up Day. The event, always held the first Saturday in May, mobilizes volunteers in all corners of the state to pick up roadside garbage. In 2018, over 22,500 volunteers participated, including children of all ages, representing 240 towns. Together, volunteers collected 225 tons of litter and 5,561 tires.
Green Up Vermont receives 30 to 40 percent of its income from the charitable tax checkoff, said Sue Killoran, interim executive director. Like all of the other recipients, Killoran is not sure about how many Vermonters donate, nor the size of the average donation.
Like Killoran, Gomez says, “We don’t get any data. All we get is revenue transferred from the Department of Taxes.”
It’s the same at the Vermont Children’s Trust. “We don’t get any info on how many people donate or what the amounts are,” says Ahmadi. “(The tax department) used to provide us with great reports, but lately it’s been more difficult to get that information.”
There are between 15,000 and 20,000 contributions each year, according to the Vermont Department of Taxes. But the number is a little skewed: Some of these are counting one person who donated to all four funds, while others may have donated to just one fund. Total dollar contributions to all four funds are usually between $300,000 and $325,000 each year.
It’s the big picture that seems to matter most to these recipients, though, because another thing all of them echoed together was their gratitude for the support of Vermonters.
“We’re just so grateful,” said Hart.
Correction: This article originally indicated the incorrect line. It was updated to reflect the correct line -- 29C -- on Tuesday, Feb. 20.