Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

U.S. debates end to penny after Canada cashes in

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WASHINGTON -- News that Canada is doing away with the penny has renewed debate in the United States about whether it's time to dump a piece of currency once described by an esteemed American publication as "horrid and useless."

Canada came in for high praise Friday from a U.S. advocacy group called Citizens for Retiring the Penny, with its motto "Isn't it annoying?"

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"If Canada can do it, why can't we?" asked Aaron R. Priven on the group's Facebook page.

"Bravo!" added another. "Canada has done the right thing. Hopefully the U.S. will soon follow."

The idea of eliminating the penny, stamped with the profile of former president Abraham Lincoln, has been a topic of debate for years in the United States, where it costs 2.4 cents to produce the coin.

"Why do pennies exist?" writer David Owen asked in a New Yorker piece in 2008 that called for the coin's elimination and lauded Canada for taking a modern approach to eliminating bothersome pieces of currency, including one- and two-dollar bills.

On Friday, he had nothing but praise for Canada for once again taking the leap. "Canada is and has been a trailblazer, and was out early on a number of fronts, including eliminating the one-dollar bill, switching to different, cheaper metals -- things that Americans have been reluctant to do."

"I don't know if Americans will ever come around on it. There's a sentimental attachment to the penny.... We probably won't be done with them until we're done using cash in general, when people start using their phones to pay for things."

Two separate bills calling for the demise of the penny, tabled in 2002 and 2006 by Republican congressman Jim Kolbe, failed to advance.

The American zinc lobby has been a major opponent to any suggestions the penny be eliminated. Another advocacy group, Americans for Common Cents, passionately defends the penny.

One economic study found the penny costs the economy more than $100 million a year when the costs of minting the coins were added to the tab for handling, transporting and storing them. Last year, the Royal Canadian Mint spent $11 million producing hundreds of millions of pennies.

The first Canadian pennies were minted by the province of Canada in 1858, almost a decade before Confederation. The coins were struck to try to bring some standardization to an economy that used a mix of British and American coins, various tokens issued by banks and companies -- and even Spanish silver dollars. At its birth, the penny was a robust coin, bigger than today's quarter.

The Royal Canadian Mint opened in 1908 and continued striking the big pennies, although a jump in metal prices shrank the design to its present size in 1920. That was also when the coin gained the two maple leaves on its reverse.

The penny, or cent, was also known as a copper, mainly because of its metal content. From 1942 until 1996, it was 98 per cent copper. Rising metal prices, however, pushed the mint to substitute zinc for most of the copper between 1997 and 1999 and then to use steel and a copper plating for the rest of the penny's life.

-- The Canadian Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 31, 2012 A3

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