Capitol Alert

Road to California tax checkoff paved by legislative connections

Homeless advocates question K to College budget request

In 2015, K to College sought a $7.5 million budget allocation to start a new state program providing basic supplies to homeless schoolchildren.
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In 2015, K to College sought a $7.5 million budget allocation to start a new state program providing basic supplies to homeless schoolchildren.

The seed for one California tax checkoff benefiting a well-connected charity was planted at a warehouse in Martinez.

In March 2010, then-state Sen. Mark DeSaulnier was invited by a constituent to help assemble bags of school supplies and dental kits for low-income students. It was at this early volunteer event for the nonprofit K to College that the Concord Democrat met its founder and executive director, Benito Delgado-Olson, a recent graduate of UC Berkeley working to turn his university group into a full-time charity.

Within two years, DeSaulnier was carrying a bill for Delgado-Olson to create the School Supplies for Homeless Children Fund, elevating K to College’s mission to one of a precious few voluntary contribution slots on the state tax form.

“Every year he had some idea and we worked on it,” said DeSaulnier, who now serves the region in Congress. “He’s a really bright guy, the embodiment of what you want in a nonprofit.”

As Californians finish their state taxes each spring, they can choose to make donations to nearly 20 causes – ranging from protection of endangered species to arts education to maintenance for police officer and firefighter memorials near the Capitol – that are then deductible the following year.

But rather than any broader assessment of the state’s most worthwhile and needy charities, the funds, which can generate several hundred thousand dollars per year, are created through a piecemeal approach that has benefited a handful of philanthropic groups favored by California lawmakers.

The citizens should have more say over the charities that they support.

Sen. Lois Wolk, D-Davis, who authored an unsuccessful bill to overhaul the tax checkoff system

Those who have observed the process for years say the biggest hurdle to getting a tax checkoff is finding an author for the bill, because once introduced, legislators wary of the optics of rejecting a charity are unlikely to vote against it. As a result, it has primarily served community groups with connections to members or organizations that know the system.

Various efforts to overhaul the checkoff system have followed since its creation in 1984. Two years ago, Sen. Lois Wolk, D-Davis, proposed a bill that would have expanded the form to include up to 200 California nonprofits in the Attorney General’s Registry of Charitable Trusts. Facing opposition from some fund recipients, including food banks and firefighters, it did not pass.

Wolk said the current approach encompasses only a fraction of eligible charities in California, thereby constricting a program meant to boost philanthropic giving in the state. Meanwhile, the qualifications of those organizations that do make the list are often unclear. Some that fall off the form because they fail to meet the contribution threshold – starting at $250,000 and rising slightly each year – simply cycle back on by sponsoring another bill.

“Many of these groups are worthy, and many of the groups have integrity. They say what they’re going to do,” Wolk said. “But the citizens should have more say over the charities that they support.”

The saga of the School Supplies for Homeless Children Fund is one example of how the current system functions. Originally written to direct contributions to K to College, the effort initially failed.

Its first committee analysis noted that the measure benefited a single charity. The bill was changed so that the California Department of Education would allocate the money to nonprofits “that provide school supplies and health-related products to homeless children.” It still fell short in the Senate Appropriations Committee.

“As far as we can tell, and I think Sen. DeSaulnier recognizes this too, there’s only one nonprofit in the state that does this. So the tax checkoff would be focused on that one organization, which I find should be a little more open,” then-Sen. Christine Kehoe, a San Diego Democrat who chaired the committee, said at the hearing. “Generally, we have not done tax checkoffs for one organization.”

It wasn’t particularly easy, but it did get through.

Benito Delgado-Olson, executive director of K to College, on first tax checkoff bill

A week later, the proposal returned and passed unanimously. It now provided $5,000 grants on a first-come, first-served basis to school districts statewide, which could then partner with nonprofits. By the time it was signed four months later, it had gone through several more iterations, ultimately becoming a competitive grant program.

In an interview, Delgado-Olson said lawmakers were eventually swayed by the “nitty-gritty detail” of “things that you can’t believe are happening in California but truly are,” like 298,000 school-age children without a stable place to sleep at night, the federal definition of homelessness.

“It wasn’t particularly easy, but it did get through,” he said. The bill had to overcome pushback that “while there are other nonprofits that benefit from the checkoff system, they’re more established than you, so you can’t be on the form.”

K to College was less than three years old at that point. Though it began as a project at UC Berkeley, where Delgado-Olson graduated in 2007, it launched in earnest in 2009 with a pilot for 300 local schoolchildren. Later that year, Delgado-Olson quit his job to pursue the organization full time.

It grew through in-kind donations from corporate sponsors and partnerships with local school districts and county offices of education.

With “recovery and reinvestment” funding made available to communities through the federal stimulus package, K to College was soon serving nearly every low-income school in Alameda, Contra Costa and San Francisco counties and expanding beyond the Bay Area. School-supply kits reached 146,000 students in two years, Delgado-Olson said.

He’s a really bright guy, the embodiment of what you want in a nonprofit.

Rep. Mark DeSaulnier, D-Concord, on K to College executive director Benito Delgado-Olson

Then the stimulus money ran out, and K to College had to look elsewhere for support.

Don Solem, president of K to College’s board, said they eventually came up with the idea of pursuing the tax checkoff. Solem, a San Francisco public relations professional, connected with Delgado-Olson at an alumni event for their mutual fraternity five years ago and was “knocked out” by the organization’s work on the issue. They turned to DeSaulnier, who had already helped by connecting them with a program in which state prison inmates assembled the kits.

“We always thought that our program was really innovative,” Solem said. “If we could get more money from the state to help more people, I would do anything within the law to do that.”

Difficulty in setting up the fund at the Department of Education, where officials said it would take two years and more than $150,000 just to establish the competitive grant program, led K to College and DeSaulnier to return in 2014 with fix-it legislation.

The bill moved the program to the Department of Social Services, which would designate a nonprofit to receive contributions from the fund, provided they could match it 100 percent with cash or in-kind donations. K to College won that contract, worth $830,000 so far; another $212,000 has gone to administering the fund.

$643,000Amount K to College has received so far from the School Supplies for Homeless Children Fund

Delgado-Olson said the group has received about $643,000 from the tax checkoff through March and have provided a 143 percent match. The money has been used to distribute more than 26,000 school supply kits, 43,000 dental hygiene kits and 21,000 backpacks to low-income students across the state.

After DeSaulnier was elected to Congress in 2014, K to College turned to other lawmakers for help beyond the tax checkoff. They have not been as successful.

Over the past two years, Assemblywoman Shirley Weber, D-San Diego, and Sen. Carol Liu, D-La Cañada Flintridge, both carried failed bills to start new state programs providing “basic material needs” such as “school supplies, dental supplies and other hygienic products, shoes, socks, and underwear” for homeless youths.

Liu’s measure, setting aside up to $5 million per year from the budget for the Department of Social Services to contract with nonprofit organizations, was held in the appropriations committee in January.

She said she was approached with the proposal by her friend Solem because she had worked on homeless issues before. Solem organized Liu’s husband Michael Peevey’s farewell dinner last February after he stepped down as president of the California Public Utilities Commission.

“I was happy to try and help,” Liu said. “It doesn’t come close to addressing hard issues, but it’s something small that could be done.”

Solem argued that if California has mandatory laws about going to school, then children should have the tools they need – and the state has enough wealth to fund school supplies for homeless students.

“It just seems like basic, inexpensive morality,” he said. “I don’t think you should have to count on begging rich people.”

I don’t think you should have to count on begging rich people.

Don Solem, K to College board president

He credited Delgado-Olson as the driving force in the tax checkoff and K to College’s other Capitol efforts, which have garnered dozens of legislative co-authors.

“I think connections were maybe 2 percent, but 98 percent was people saw he had a program that could do a lot of good at a low cost,” Solem said.

Nevertheless, some homeless advocates have raised concerns that lawmakers are not giving equal attention to other crucial services.

Several formerly homeless youths attended a hearing last April for the Assembly Budget Subcommittee on Health and Human Services, where Delgado-Olson asked for categorical funding for his program, and questioned how much money was going to shelters and housing.

The director of child welfare policy for research and advocacy group Children Now – whose president, former Assemblyman Ted Lempert, also sits on K to College’s board – suggested his work might be better done through philanthropy.

Sherilyn Adams, executive director of Larkin Street Youth Services, said providing free school supplies is a nice way to normalize students’ classroom experience, but “it does not solve homelessness.” She said her group, which helps young people on the streets of San Francisco, would like to see greater emphasis on housing and supportive services like counseling and job training.

298,000Approximate number of schoolchildren without reliable place to sleep at night

Delgado-Olson said he’s exhausted philanthropic options, and the corporate sponsors K to College relies on are often not available in the Central Valley, the Inland Empire and east Los Angeles County, “where a lot of these kids are concentrated.”

“We’ve tried. Believe me. We’ve sent out more letters than I can count illustrating the need,” he said. “Fundraising is hard. It’s really hard.”

This year, another legislative supporter is working to renew the tax checkoff, which sunsets next year, for at least five more years. Assemblyman Miguel Santiago, D-Los Angeles, has served as an advisory board member for K to College. He became involved as an aide in former Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez’s district office, where he connected K to College with local school officials. As the representative for downtown Los Angeles’ skid row, he said addressing homelessness is a priority for him in the Legislature.

“This is something that I live, breathe and see,” Santiago said. “There are lots of different things that you participate in in the past, and some of them spill over.”

Alexei Koseff: 916-321-5236, @akoseff

California tax checkoffs

  • Alzheimer’s Disease/Related Disorders Fund
  • California Breast Cancer Research Fund
  • California Cancer Research Fund
  • California Firefighters’ Memorial Fund
  • California Peace Officer Memorial Foundation Fund
  • California Sea Otter Fund
  • California Senior Legislature Fund
  • California Seniors Special Fund
  • California Sexual Violence Victim Services Fund
  • Child Victims of Human Trafficking Fund
  • Emergency Food for Families Fund
  • Habitat for Humanity Fund
  • Keep Arts in Schools Fund
  • Prevention of Animal Homelessness and Cruelty Fund
  • Protect Our Coasts and Oceans Fund
  • Rare and Endangered Species Preservation Program
  • School Supplies for Homeless Children Fund
  • State Children’s Trust Fund for the Prevention of Child Abuse
  • State Parks Protection Fund/Park Pass Purchase