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Coins Of The Realms Quarters Would Keep Heads, Get 50 New Tails

The majestic eagle gracing the back of the quarter for more than half a century may soon temporarily cede its place to such critters as California’s bear and Louisiana’s pelican.

A proposal before Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin would direct the U.S. Mint to produce 50 new designs, one for each state.

The familiar profile of George Washington would remain and the quarters would be the same size and weight, so they’d work in vending machines. But starting in 1999, five new designs for the quarter’s reverse side would be issued each year for 10 years, replacing the eagle.

Collectors bored with the same old coin designs are enthusiastically lobbying for the plan. Under a law enacted last October, Rubin has until Aug. 1 to decide.

“This would be the biggest thing to happen in numismatics (coin collecting) in my lifetime,” said Kenneth Bressett, president of the 106-year-old American Numismatic Association.

Critics worry that the plan would subject the Treasury Department to a flood of commemorative proposals from Congress. But backers say the new quarters would earn the government billions of dollars and teach children about the heritage of their states.

“Forgetting everything else, I just think it’s fun,” said Rep. Michael Castle, R-Del., whose own state, the first to ratify the Constitution, would lead the cavalcade of commemoratives. “When you get quarters for change, now you’re going to look at them.”

Castle, chairman of the House Banking monetary policy subcommittee, sponsored the law requiring Rubin to mint the quarters or explain his reasons for declining. It also provided for a feasibility study, which was prepared by the Coopers & Lybrand accounting firm and released by Rubin’s department.

The March telephone poll of 2,032 adults aged 18 and older, with a margin of error of 2 percent, found far more respondents favored the program, 51 percent, than opposed it, 11 percent. A substantial minority, 38 percent, was indifferent.

But, more importantly, 75 percent of those polled said they’d likely save some of the new quarters, just as Americans squirreled away an estimated 1.8 billion of the slightly more than 2 billion Bicentennial quarters produced in 1975 and 1976.

The study estimated 34 percent of American adults are still saving an average of 27.5 of the Bicentennial coins, picturing a colonial drummer on the reverse. It projected that 98 million adults each would collect an average of 7.8 of the 50-coin state sets. That doesn’t include the quarters that might be saved by 52 million school-age youngsters.

Because the government spends about 4 cents to mint a quarter but sells them to the Federal Reserve for face value, it would earn between $2.6 billion and $5.1 billion over a decade, the study said.

Rubin, in a letter to Castle last week, said, “I have some personal reservations in light of the serious public policy concerns surrounding this unique program.”

He didn’t specify his misgivings, but the study raised several issues. Before the government earned any money from the program, it would need to spend money on a promotional campaign. There could be squabbles between state and federal officials over the designs for each state.

And the usual method for distributing coins, from the Federal Reserve through banks, couldn’t guarantee the availability of all designs in every area of the country. When Canada issued 12 different quarters honoring its provinces and territories in 1992, there were shortages.