Putting a new face on the dollar coin debate

DALLAS – The granite wall of Mount Rushmore might be filled, but Americans could soon get a closer look at the foursome and 38 other presidential faces if the Senate supports a proposed dollar coin.

The program to reinvigorate the dollar coin would feature the faces of former presidents. Four coins would be minted each year, starting with George Washington in 2007. Sitting presidents would be excluded.

The measure could come before senators this fall. The House flipped over the coin program in April and approved it overwhelmingly.

The proposal is modeled on the popular 50 states quarters program, which the U.S. Mint rolled out with the Delaware coin in 1999. That program has generated more than $4 billion in revenue, as 140 million Americans became coin collectors willing to pay above face value for packaged sets of quarters.

The U.S. Treasury could save as much as $500 million a year on printing costs if the public accepts the presidential coin, according to a 2002 report by the Government Accountability Office. That’s because coins can last more than 30 years, compared with the 18 month life expectancy of paper dollars.

But not everyone supports the proposal. Rep. Ted Poe, R-Texas, who voted against the House bill, doesn’t like the government forcing people to use coins they don’t want.

“They have used taxpayer money to fund marketing for the latest dollar – $62 million spent on promoting a coin Americans don’t want to use,” he said.

Larry Harmon, owner of texascoins.com and a coin collector since 1957, said the new dollar coin would be a flop, just like those before it.

His reasons for their failure: They’re heavy (the Eisenhower dollar), ugly (the golden Sacagawea) or the wrong size (the Susan B. Anthony). People would rather fold than jingle, he says.

“As long as we have paper currency simultaneous to coinage, it will never work,” said Harmon of San Antonio.

He said the government would be wise to mint a $5 coin instead so that Americans wouldn’t be weighed down as much. Otherwise, the $1 coin benefits only the U.S. Mint and collectors.

To date, the golden dollar coin, which features Sacagawea, the Shoshone interpreter who guided the Lewis and Clark expedition, has been stashed by collectors rather than cashed at the corner store.

The U.S. Mint expected more from the golden dollar when it introduced 1.6 billion Sacagawea coins in 2000. Last year, it minted 5.3 million of the coins, which went to collectors.

The Mint’s frustration with the public’s response to the golden dollar is evident on its Web site: “It’s money. So use it,” the site exhorts.

Steve Ivy, chief executive and chairman of Dallas-based Heritage Galleries and Auctioneers, the world’s largest coin and collectables auctioneer, said the presidential coin is a great idea.

“Everyone profits from it,” he said. “The Mint makes money off it. It promotes history. It promotes coin collecting.”