August 19, 2012 in Nation/World

Lawmakers push coins to replace dollar bills

Similar efforts have repeatedly failed
Kaz Komolafe McClatchy-Tribune
 
Potential savings

U.S. taxpayers would save $5.5 billion over 30 years by making the change to a dollar coin, according to the Government Accountability Office. The dollar coin costs 15 cents to produce and lasts 30 years; the dollar bill costs about 3 cents to produce and lasts 4.7 years.

WASHINGTON – If certain lawmakers have their way, soon there will be fewer dollar bills in your wallet and more coins in your pocket. After years of talk, dollar-coin supporters and some economists say the time has come to replace the $1 bill with a copper coin.

Among those backing the introduction of a dollar coin are Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, and Rep. David Schweikert, R-Ariz., both of whom introduced bills in Congress earlier this year to improve the circulation of the dollar coin through education efforts and the collection of obsolete coins. Arizona and Iowa would benefit from the fiscal injection brought about by copper-coin production.

To supporters of the dollar coin, the concern over the economy will make any cost-cutting strategies – such as the switch to the dollar coin – more appealing, said John Caskey, a professor of economics at Swarthmore College.

“The people who back this look and say the United States has a budget problem, so if we’re ever going to get traction on this issue, then let’s do it now,” he said.

But despite recent efforts, the dollar-coin proposal faces significant obstacles. Switching to coins would be a hassle for businesses, and the American public hasn’t embraced the coins in the past. In addition, the Treasury Department decided just last year to halt the production of a series of presidential dollar coins.

“Given the substantial, growing inventory of $1 coins, it is clear that the minting of hundreds of millions of additional $1 coins over the next several years is not necessary and is not an effective use of taxpayer dollars,” Deputy Treasury Secretary Neal S. Wolin said in making the 2011 announcement.

This isn’t the first time that advocates have fought it out over the dollar coin. But given the nation’s fiscal woes, dollar-coin proponents say that this year could be different. Paper manufacturers and copper companies are spending more than they did last year in their lobbying efforts on the issue, according to lobbying disclosure reports.

Dollar-coin advocates say coins are more convenient for consumers who make lots of small transactions, such as at vending machines or on public buses.

Retailers, on the other hand, say replacing the dollar bill completely would carry a high transition cost. They’d have to adapt cash registers, change money-transportation procedures and reprogram coin dispensers, said Jeff Lenard, a spokesman for the National Association of Convenience Stores.

Unlike many other countries, the United States has been hesitant to replace low-denomination bills with coins.

The Susan B. Anthony dollar, adopted in 1979, was such a failure that the government had to store thousands of them in salt mines because the public didn’t spend them, Caskey said.

Other efforts were also met with limited success. When the Treasury halted production of the presidential dollar coins in 2011 after four years, Vice President Joe Biden said it was because “nobody wants to use them.”

The Government Accountability Office, Congress’ investigative arm, estimated last year that taxpayers would save $5.5 billion over 30 years by making the change to a dollar coin.

The dollar coin costs 15 cents to produce and lasts 30 years; the dollar bill costs about 3 cents to produce and lasts 4.7 years, the GAO’s Lorelei St. James said.

Given the nation’s $16 trillion budget deficit, the dollar coin is a “smart investment for our country,” Harkin said.

Even so, Caskey said the estimated savings were too small to have any real impact on the deficit in the long term.

The dollar coin is a good investment for Iowa, which is home to PMX Industries Inc., the company that’s responsible for making the sheets of metal used to produce copper coins.

In addition, Arizona produces roughly 60 percent of U.S. copper.

The Dollar Coin Alliance spent $410,000 in the first half of this year to lobby for the coin; at the same point last year, it had spent $300,000, according to lobbying disclosure reports.

The issue has been elevated to a higher level this year, said Tom Schatz, the president of Citizens Against Government Waste, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that monitors federal spending.

“This is the first Congress in many, many years that has even had legislation introduced,” he added.

Even so, the legislation has made little progress in this election year. The bills await committee hearings.

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