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February 21st, 2007 Christian Gaston | News Stories
 

Gifts That Keep On Giving

Senate bill to milk school funds straight from corporate teat.

     
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IMAGE: THOMAS COBB
Remember two years ago when your douchebag boss gave you a $20 restaurant gift card instead of a Christmas bonus and, after weighing the possibility of settling for all-you-can eat soup, salad and breadsticks, you banished the card to the nether reaches of your wallet in case of a pasta emergency?

In Oregon, that card's balance may be zero. Many companies issue gift cards with dormancy fees that apply a small charge to the balance for each month of inactivity. Or cards from places such as Blockbuster Video, Shari's and Macy's have an expiration date, which means unclaimed money spent on the gift card stays with the retailer that issued the card.

The estimated value nationally in 2006 of expired gift cards: $8 billion, or the gross national product of Honduras. In Oregon, the number is estimated to be $96 million.

Two bills in the Oregon Legislature would outlaw expiration dates.

State Sen. Ben Westlund (D-Tumalo) has introduced a bill that would outlaw all fees and expiration dates for gift cards. His bill, SB 460, would also qualify unused cards as unclaimed property, sending any unredeemed value into the state's "common school fund" after three years of inactivity.

That would bring Oregon in line with Washington, Montana and other states that outlaw fees and designate unspent gift-card value as abandoned property.

"The strength of the bill isn't just the school angle," says Otto Schell, lobbyist for the Oregon PTA, one of several education groups backing Westlund's bill. "It's also the consumer-protection angle."

Last session, retail banking and restaurant lobbies sandbagged a similar bill. Since then, so many states have passed these bills that Associated Oregon Industries' main focus is on killing the part of Westlund's bill that would route money into state coffers, says AOI's Julie Brandis.

The $96 million estimate for Oregon in unspent annual gift card value would be more than three times the $30 million the state currently collects in unclaimed property each year from sources such as undelivered tax returns.

Westlund figures that the interest from unspent gift-card revenue deposited in the common schools fund would work out to as much as $10 million more in school funding each year. While $10 million in what's shaping up to be a $6 billion school-funding budget this session may not be large, another $10 million could pay for another 128 teachers statewide.

The other upside, according to Westlund, is that the bill would make it easier to retrieve the value of old gift cards in cash from the state.

"It's a heck of a lot easier to call the unclaimed property division and say, 'I'm John Smith, do I have any unclaimed property?'" Westlund says.

In the House, Rep. Carolyn Tomei (D-Milwaukie) has introduced similar legislation, HB 2513.

"These laws are up and operating in 38 states," Westlund says. "In some regard you could say that Oregon is behind the curve on this."

 
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