Voluntary income tax check-off could aid unwanted horses

By Cindy Brovsky
THE COLORADO STATESMAN

Two rural legislators are turning to Colorado taxpayers to help protect a symbol of Colorado’s Western heritage.

They hope a voluntary check-off on individual income tax return forms will raise donations to help the estimated 6,000 horses that are abandoned yearly on public lands, left to starve in open fields or dumped at horse auctions.

“People who enjoyed the horses and at one time could take care of them are now facing problems with the economy,” said bill sponsor Sen. Ken Kester, R-Los Animas. “It’s a shame that these animals, who were cared for as pets, now have to fend for themselves.”

The “Unwanted Horse Fund,” co-sponsored by Rep. Jerry Sonneberg, R-Sterling, would provide donations for the Colorado Unwanted Horse Alliance. The non-profit was formed in 2008 to help coordinate efforts among horse rescuers and promote more public education. Board members include a Colorado State University professor, veterinarian and representatives from a horse rescue and Colorado Department of Agriculture.

“People once upon a time could economically care for these horses and now they can’t,” said Chris Whitney, board president of the alliance. “Most Coloradans recognize this is an increasingly bad problem. It’s not a question of whether these people abandoning the horses are evil but to find ways to deal with the crisis of unwanted horses.”

Whitney, who also serves as president of the Colorado Horse Council, said if the check-off is approved the Unwanted Horse Alliance may eventually be able to give grants to horse rescue operations, which also are overwhelmed with feeding and boarding costs.

Sonneberg owns two horses and said some people are shocked by the cost of feeding and boarding a horse. A low estimate of yearly costs is $2,500 per horse, not including veterinary or emergency costs, Whitney said.

“We don’t know if the check-off will work, but it is better than nothing,” Sonneberg said.

The income tax return check-off has proven successful for other Colorado non-profits. Nearly 170,000 donations on the 2008 individual tax return raised $1.7 million for 14 organizations. The donations ranged from $213,982 for the Military Family Relief Fund to $41,802 for the Western Colorado State Veterans’ Cemetery Fund, according to a Colorado Legislative Council Staff fiscal note.

Nearly 16,900 taxpayers also donated $183,716 to the Pet Overpopulation Fund, which was the third highest contribution for 2008.

“Those kinds of donations give me hope,” Sonneberg said about possibilities of taxpayers donating for unwanted horses.

The check-off also will make more people aware of the problem, Kester said.

“I do feel confident that the more people learn about the issue, the more they may be willing to donate,” he said.

The state allows 15 check-offs on the individual income tax forms, which must reach a certain donation level or be removed. The unwanted horse check-off would be allowed for 2010 to 2012 income tax return forms and must raise at least $75,000 through those years, according to the bill.

One possible stumbling block to the bill is the cost for the Department of Revenue to add a new check-off to the income tax form. The department said it would cost $30,550, including 480 hours of computer programming. The bill specifies that those costs would be reimbursed by the Unwanted Horse Fund or come from the General Fund until enough money is raised.

The proposal passed the Senate Committee on Agriculture and National Resources earlier this month by a 5-1 vote.

Cindy@coloradostatesman.com