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Dollar coin a tough sell to Americans

- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 2, 2012

American consumers have shown about as much appetite for the $1 coin as children do their spinach. They may not know what's best for them either. Congressional auditors say that eliminating dollar bills and replacing them with coins could save taxpayers some $4.4 billion over the next 30 years.

Vending machine operators have long championed the use of $1 coins because they don't jam the machines, cutting down on repair costs and lost sales. But most people don't seem to like carrying the coins. In the past five years, the U.S. Mint has produced 2.4 billion Presidential $1 coins. Most are stored by the Federal Reserve, and production was suspended about a year ago.

The latest projection from the Government Accountability Office on the potential savings from switching entirely to dollar coins was announced as lawmakers began exploring new ways for the government to save money by changing the money itself.

The Mint is preparing a report for Congress showing how changes in the metal content of coins could save money.

The last time the government made major metallurgical changes in U.S. coins was nearly 50 years ago when Congress directed the Mint to remove silver from dimes and quarters and to reduce its content in half-dollar coins. Now, Congress is looking at changes in response to rising prices for copper and nickel.

At a House subcommittee hearing Thursday, the focus was on two approaches: moving to less-expensive combinations of metals such as steel, aluminum and zinc; and gradually taking dollar bills out of the economy and replacing them with coins.

The GAO's Lorelei St. James told the House Financial Services panel that it would take several years for the benefits of switching from paper bills to dollar coins to catch up with the cost of making the change. Equipment would have to be bought or overhauled and more coins would have to be produced upfront to replace bills as they are taken out of circulation.

But over the years, the savings would begin to accrue, she said, largely because a $1 coin could stay in circulation for 30 years while paper bills have to be replaced every four or five years on average.

"We continue to believe that replacing the note with a coin is likely to provide a financial benefit to the government," said Mr. St. James, who added that such a change would work only if the note was eliminated completely and the public educated about the benefits of the switch.

Even the $1 coin's most ardent supporters recognize that they haven't been popular. Philip Diehl, former director of the Mint, said there was a huge demand for the Sacagawea dollar coin when production began in 2001, but as time wore on, people stayed with what they knew best.

"We've never bitten the bullet to remove the $1 bill as every other Western economy has done," Mr. Diehl said. "It's really a matter of just getting used to it."

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