Where Will They Stop?

Bruce Bialosky

7/6/2009 12:00:24 AM - Bruce Bialosky

As I sit down on the 4th of July to write this week’s column, I am deeply humbled by what the founding fathers of this country have created for us. Yet every day we are giving away our freedoms by electing people who willingly usurp our rights for what they say is “the common good.” The latest instance is the taking of unused gift cards by state legislatures.

Some of you may be aware that states have previously established the right to confiscate unclaimed bank accounts. There was a rationalization that if the account was unclaimed, somehow it should become the state’s property as opposed to the bank’s property. This included safe deposit boxes, which soon provided a fountain of horror stories. People came forth who had innocently maintained their safe deposit boxes at banks without ever moving their residence. They would find out that states, in their never-ending thirst for funds, had sold their heirloom jewelry or stock certificates.

The state governments have now extended this taking of personal property to gift cards. The explosion in use of gift cards has been a fascinating cultural phenomenon. Annually $65 billion of the cards are sold. Americans have gotten sick of receiving useless gifts for Christmas, birthdays or graduation. Some of us are just lazy about gift giving, so the advent of gift cards has been a panacea. No more do people have to receive mystery gifts or stand in line to return an ugly tie or a third Crockpot. Gift cards are all about personal choice -- a basic American value.

Leave it to our elected officials to put the kibosh on personal freedom. Just because someone gets a gift card does not mean they run to the store to use it the very next day. An estimated $6.8 billion in gift cards per year go unused. However, some of us make sure that doesn’t happen. In my house, when one of my kids gets a gift card, it goes in my nightstand drawer and I drive them crazy until it is used. Often I will buy it from them so I make sure it is used. The last thing we want to happen is for the card to get lost or go unused and lose the value of someone’s generous gift.

Some of these gift cards have expiration dates. At first glance, that would seem to be ridiculous. The retailer has to keep track of these cards in their computer system. It seems reasonable that after a period of time they would be considered lost if unused. The period of time may be up for debate, but a reasonable consumer would not expect the cards to be held open indefinitely.

The question then becomes, what happens to the unused cards? To state legislators, this is seen as their money. After all, they can come up with some contrived rationale for raising fees, taxes or taking property to suit almost any situation. Regardless of the fact that this is a transaction between a retailer and a consumer, the state apparatchiks see this as abandoned property and thus theirs.

Some of you may think this is a left-wing attempt to continue expanding governments intervention into our lives. You need to know that there are plenty of red states that have gotten into this game. Georgia, Utah, Wyoming and Idaho join Washington and Pennsylvania as the worst offenders. These states take 100% of the face value of the unused cards into their bottomless pits. At least some of the other states only take 60% of the face value, crediting the retailers with having costs involved. There are only 9 states, a mix of red and blue ones, who have kept their hands off for now. It is easy to see their elected officials falling into the “me too” argument instead of standing by the principles of personal freedom that built this country. Time will tell in that regard.

Some states are even thinking of extending their taking of personal property to unexpired cards. Texas, which already steals monies into the state fund for expired cards, had a bill pass their House authorizing extension of this horrible law to unexpired cards. That is right – Texas.

The states cover up their stealing of personal property by saying they are actually attempting to return the property to the consumers. Yeah, right. How do you track a card to someone who may have paid cash and then given the card as a gift to then sell it to someone like me? The truth is even if their efforts were real they would barely succeed.

The obvious answer to protect consumers from this abusive extension of government is for them to use the cards in a timely manner. Now that elected officials have extended their rationale for stealing of personal property to gift cards, what will be their next target? New York transferred $691 million this year into its coffers from its residents’ personal property under its various taking laws. Yet, it still had a deficit of $7.4 billion.

On this wonderful weekend where we are celebrating the most historic change in personal freedom for mankind – the Declaration of Independence – this issue may seem like a small infringement. If you believe so, that is a problem. That is why this cancer continues to grow. Where will they go next and when will they stop? That is up to us all.