By Dan Menefee

Comptroller Peter Franchot, right, at budget hearing with staff.

Comptroller Peter Franchot, right, at budget hearing with staff.

Maryland Comptroller Peter Franchot says he can save taxpayers $500,000 in advertising expense next year if he doesn’t have to print and distribute the list of unclaimed property.

There were 75,000 Marylanders with unclaimed property in 2011. To notify them, the comptroller’s office paid over $600,000 to publish one-million newspaper supplements distributed around the state.

Under Franchot’s proposal, the comptroller would instead place a simple ad in local newspapers that direct Marylanders to the online database of unclaimed property. This is the third year in a row Franchot is proposing to ditch the newspaper supplement, but the legislature has restored the expenditure each year.

“I’m holding $1 billion for Marylanders,” Franchot told a House Appropriations subcommittee last week. “I encourage everybody to look at the list. You might have some money there, and it’s fun! We had over 50,000 claims last year.”

Franchot joked that Marylanders have a better chance of finding unclaimed property on the online database than winning the lottery. “And you don’t even have to buy a ticket.”

He said using the online database almost exclusively is a more “cost efficient and effective” way for Marylanders to claim property – since 82% of all Marylanders have access to the Internet.

Newspaper advertising is an inefficient method of connecting Marylanders with their abandoned property, according to a report Franchot gave to the committee. Of the 75,000 names printed in 2011, only 4,900 (6%) responded to the printed supplements.

He said the elderly and rural residents without Internet could go to public libraries or visit one of the comptroller’s 12 locations throughout the state to see the list.

The state paid out $40 million in abandoned property in 2011, of which $1.6 million was intercepted to pay delinquent child support.

Comptroller will save $250,000 annually by phasing out paper tax returns

Another way Franchot wants to save money is phasing out printed tax forms. He said more than two-million Marylanders filed their taxes electronically last year.

“It’s an all-time-high, it’s the majority of all income tax returns,” Franchot told the committee. “We anticipate setting another record this year with 75% of all returns filed electronically.”

He said the increase in E-filings was made possible by a new law that requires paid preparers to file electronically. He said the next step was to get all Marylanders to file electronically, which would save 26 million pages of paper and $1.60 on every return filed in the state.

“My goal is to make the tax filing season virtually paperless by 2014,” Franchot said.

Libraries across the state were sent cd-roms this year to print out forms for those who still want to file a paper return.

“We will gladly assist any Marylander who wants a paper return or tax booklet, but we are eventually phasing them out and replacing them with the electronic version,” Franchot said.

Some resistance on paperless tax returns

“Obviously we’ve gotten some unhappy taxpayers calling us and insisting on a paper form,” said Christine Feldmann, deputy director of communications for the comptroller. “There’s always going to be that group of people who like the status quo, and it takes time to get used to change, so we’re happy to send people tax forms…We’ll even do your taxes for free if you come and see us.”

She said Marylanders feel more comfortable with E-filing once they’ve talked to the comptroller’s office and learned more about how the electronic system works.