A divided House subcommittee yesterday took up a controversial bill under which the U.S. Treasury would mint special coins, then turn them over to private entrepreneurs to be resold to the public at a profit, in part for the benefit of the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles.
The plan, which already has Senate approval, calls for three companies--Franklin Mint, Lazard Freres and Occidental Petroleum--to market special commemorative Olympic coins in denominations ranging from $1 to $100 that would be legal tender and be struck by the U.S. Mint in 17 designs.
Promoters of the idea say it could raise raise $300 million, of which a third would go to the U.S. Olympic Committee, a third to the Los Angeles Olympic Organizing Committee and a third to the private marketers.
But the bill has run into stiff opposition from coin collectors, who prefer a program that involves fewer designs in smaller denominations, marketed by the government rather than the private sector.
They have found a champion in House coinage subcommittee Chairman Frank Annunzio (D-Ill.).
"I oppose a program in which the marketers, the speculators, the lobbyists and the promoters take their first cuts and then give whatever is left to helping the athletes," Annunzio said in kicking off what he warned would be protracted hearings.
He has introduced an alternative bill that calls for the U.S. Mint to strike 50 million silver dollars bearing the same Olympic theme. The government would sell them to collectors at between $20 and $25 apiece, with 70 percent of the proceeds going to the U.S. committee and 30 percent to the Los Angeles committee.
Opponents of his plan say that the U.S. Mint does not have the marketing skills to pull off such an ambitious program.
The private-sector approach would have the government mint the coins, made of either silver or gold, which then would be sold to the two Olympic committees, which would turn them over to the marketers for resale, estimated at two to three times their face value.
"The idea behind the marketing would be to bring the coins out at intervals, and to have people buy complete sets or subsets," said David Todd, of the law firm of Patton, Boggs and Blow, which has been pushing the private plan along with such local lobbying outfits as the Timmons and Co., and Robert K. Gray and Co.
"In my 18 years in Washington, this is about the heaviest lobbying I've seen on anything," said Annunzio. "But it doesn't bother me. They don't vote in my district."
To coin collectors, who have themselves been lobbying for two decades for the government to resume commemorative coin offerings, the private plan would be a form of overkill.
"It would get awfully costly for a collector who wanted to have a complete set of U.S. coins," noted George Hatie, counsel to the American Numismatic Association. Estimates of the cost of a full 17-coin set range from $2,000 to $5,000.
"I'm not a coin collector myself, but my grandchildren are, and the thing they always want is a full set," Annunzio noted. "This is a program for the rich only."
The private group says its plan is designed to raise money, not to satisfy the wishes of the collector community. Similar commemorative coin programs, it notes, have been used by host countries of every Olympic summer game since 1952.
In this country, the practice of issuing commemorative legal tender to support worthy causes ended in the mid-1950s, when it was found that the profit from the sale of a particular issue had gone to middlemen rather than to the intended beneficiaries.
Annunzio has make good oratorical use of the precedent, charging that if the private plan goes through, "They'll have to add a new event to the 1984 games--the World Scandal."