Every year for the past several, the Oklahoma treasurer's office has set up a booth at the state fairs in Oklahoma City and Tulsa to return unclaimed property to taxpayers. It works. This year, more than $250,000 in cash and stock were returned to fair attendees in Tulsa. About $190,000 was given back during the Oklahoma State Fair.
Unclaimed property includes bank accounts, security deposits, overpayments, royalties, rebates, and stocks and bonds that are turned over to the treasurer's office when the businesses holding them lose track of the owners. The fair appearances are highly visible examples of what the office actually does year-round. Its website makes the unclaimed property division easy to find, and the treasurer's office occasionally uses tabloids in newspapers to reach out to Oklahomans. During the 2012 fiscal year, about $18.5 million in property was given back to its owners.
Residents in other states aren't as fortunate. Treasurer Ken Miller notes that unclaimed property funds comprise the third-largest source of state revenue in Delaware. In an effort to help their state recover from the economic downturn that began last decade, lawmakers in Colorado amended statutes to make more unclaimed property revenue available to patch holes in the budget. More than half the states direct unclaimed property proceeds to their general funds.
Oklahoma leans on unclaimed property revenue, too — about $10 million per year is transferred regularly, although the Legislature has occasionally raided it for more. Since 2000, $228 million has been transferred — or about $19 million per year from a pot that tops $350 million. Hardly an egregious total, but Miller is right to guard it closely.
As he said in his October newsletter, unclaimed property programs “are a true public service” when run as planned. But, “When states become dependent on unclaimed property as a revenue stream, that service risks being compromised.”