Minnesotans frequently donate to government

... you can send state or feds a check.

Last month, a check for $1,677.97 was sent to Gov. Mark Dayton's office with instructions to pay down the budget deficit.

Roughly a year before, two checks totaling $136.42 landed at the state treasury with notes saying the same. Some real cash rolled in back in 2008, when a check for $22,685 landed at the state treasury "to help the needy and sick."

That's not to mention the little-known -- but often quite large -- donations made directly to state agencies.

While UCare's recent $30 million donation to the government deficit grabbed the public spotlight, Minnesotans have been quietly donating to state government agencies for years. It's not always intended to pay down the deficit, and it's not millions in cash. But in ways big and small, they've been bailing out state government.

Some Minnesotans say the time is right to do more.

"Before I worked in government, I had no idea that you could contribute directly to a state agency,'' said Joe Howe, director of the state treasury division at Minnesota Management and Budget.

"In general, folks are more apt to donate funds for a particular purpose or a particular agency rather than to pay down the state debt," he said. "However, there are times when people make donations to the general fund."

For Minnesotans such as Kathy Meinhardt, the idea makes sense. She's been reading about the huge deficit and also about Minnesota's strong philanthropic spirit. Why not pair the two, she asked?

"Why don't we donate to ourselves?" said Meinhardt, 59, of Bloomington. "We all use the roads. We all use the libraries. We all use the parks. I think if people knew there was a way to donate to the government, a lot more people would do it."

"I would," she said.

Low-key donations

Minnesotans, it seems, have been quietly "donating to themselves" since 1907, when a statute was created allowing the state to accept "gifts, bequests, devices and endowments."

It hasn't generated billions for state coffers, but for some state agencies that provide services directly to the public it's been significant.

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, for example, reports receiving roughly $7 million a year in various types of donations. Some Minnesotans include the DNR in their wills nearly every year, leaving estates worth roughly $250,000 to $600,000, said Mike Halvorson, fish and wildlife acquisition coordinator.

The DNR also receives about $3 million a year in land donations, often lakeshore and hunting land, and about $3.6 million in proceeds from Critical Habitat license plates, Halvorson said.

"It's quite amazing," he said. "Last year we received a large piece of land on a lake worth more than $650,000."

Another roughly $5,000 a year comes from sporadic checks from ordinary citizens. Said Halvorson: "They will usually come in the form of memorials, with notes saying something like, 'My husband/father was an avid hunter or fisherman. ...'"

That's not to mention the Outdoor Heritage Funds.

Meanwhile, the Minnesota State Academy for the Blind, funded completely by the state, also frequently receives envelopes with unexpected gifts, said Linda Mitchell, superintendent of the Faribault schools.

"These are folks not walking around with $1 million," Mitchell said. "We might get $100 here and there. Or they [donors] might buy skateboards for the boys recreation department, uniforms for the middle schoolers or pompoms for the cheerleaders," she said. The school also has its own philanthropic foundation, which raises more than $30,000 a year from a golf tournament.

Willing to give?

Two recent studies at the University of Texas in Dallas indicated people are quite willing to donate to the government -- provided they know where the money is spent.

In the experiment, subjects were given money and told they could donate some anonymously to either a government or nonprofit agency. Think American Red Cross and the Federal Emergency Management Agency. On average, donors gave 22 percent of their money to government agencies and 27 percent to private charities.

"We were very surprised," said Catherine Eckel, one of the economists who conducted the research. "We wondered if it was because people could designate where the money would be paid."

Eckel said governments should tap that spirit of giving and make it easier for people to donate. She points to an online charitable site called Donors Choose, which lets users purchase playground equipment, books and other supplies for specific schools. It brought in $6 million last year alone, she said.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Treasury Department has a special fund where the public can contribute to the federal government's "Gifts to the United States" account. That account took in about $2.5 million in the past two years, said department spokesperson Melody Barrett.

Neither the U.S. Treasury nor Minnesota's treasury division has any plans to make their donation sites more widely known. Meinhardt thinks they should.

"People look for things to give to," said Meinhardt, who currently donates to her church, former high schools and university. She said she'd be willing to donate to certain state programs, especially education.

"People don't want to be taxed," she said, "but they do seem to be willing to give away their money."

Jean Hopfensperger • 612-673-4511

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  • Where to donate

    Sunday March 20, 2011

    Minnesota and the U.S. government have special accounts for public donations to their general budgets. They are:

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