April 13, 2011
As cash-strapped Californians finish their taxes over the next five days (nearly a quarter of taxpayers file within the last two weeks), conservation advocates are asking taxpayers to remember sea otters. A tax check-off program gives taxpayers the option to contribute to the sea otter fund, which first appeared on tax forms in 2007. Unless taxpayers meet minimum contribution requirements and new legislation protects the fund, which provides some $250,000 to sea otter research, this could be the last year voters see the check box on their forms.
The Franchise Tax Board sets establishes minimums for tax check-off funds like this, and in 2011, taxpayers need to give at least $260,890 to keep the fund viable for future years. "In tough economic times, it's not that we need each person to give a lot," says Jim Curland, Marine Program Associate for [Defenders of Wildlife]. "If we can get a lot of people to give just a small amount, then we'd be doing really well."
The funds are split 50-50 between the Department of Fish and Game and the California Coastal Conservancy. Many of the lab tests scientists perform on recovered otter carcasses are funded by tax-check dollars, including the tests that allowed Melissa Miller, Senior Wildlife Veterinarian Specialist in the California Department of Fish and Game and Research Associate at the University of California Santa Cruz, to detect poisoning from freshwater algae in otters last year.
An ongoing three-year study"could not have even gotten off the ground without support from the tax-checkoff program," says Tim Tinker, wildlife biologist for the U.S. Geologic Survey. The study, currently about two years along, compares otters living in relatively pristine conditions near Big Sur to otters in Monterey Bay, a highly impacted ecosystem. It's too early to draw conclusion, but "we think this will show important information on stressors," Tinker says.
Besides needing to meet the FTB minimum amount, the sea otter fund is also in legislative limbo. The legislation originally establishing the fund in 2006, sponsored by then-Assemblyman John Laird, sunsets this year.
Assemblyman Bill Monning has authored a bill that would reestablish the fund for another five years, which passed the Assembly Revenue and Taxation Committee with a 6-0 vote on Monday. Curland says that space limitations make the tax check-off fund space a competitive one. With four new funds also vying for limited space, "We've definitely been worried, because of the state of the economy and tough times."
Curland expects a determination on the bill in September. As to meeting FTB's fund minimum, tax filings continue trickling in through year-end due to extensions, but the big push is before April 18.