Worried that the Federal Reserve and the U.S. dollar are on the brink of collapse, lawmakers from 13 states, including Minnesota, Tennessee, Iowa, South Carolina and Georgia, are seeking approval from their state governments to either issue their own alternative currency or explore it as an option. Just three years ago, only three states had similar proposals in place.
"In the event of hyperinflation, depression, or other economic calamity related to the breakdown of the Federal Reserve System ... the State's governmental finances and private economy will be thrown into chaos," said North Carolina Republican Representative Glen Bradley in a currency bill he introduced last year.
Unlike individual communities, which are allowed to create their own currency -- as long as it is easily distinguishable from U.S. dollars -- the Constitution bans states from printing their own paper money or issuing their own currency. But it allows the states to make "gold and silver Coin a Tender in Payment of Debts."
To the state legislators who are proposing state-issued currencies, that means gold and silver are fair game, said Edwin Vieira, an alternative currency proponent and attorney specializing in Constitutional law. And since gold has grown exponentially more valuable, while the U.S. dollar continues to lose ground, the notion has become increasingly appealing to state lawmakers, he said.
The state gold rush: Utah became the first state to introduce its own alternative currency when Governor Gary Herbert signed a bill into law last March that recognized gold and silver coins issued by the U.S. Mint as an acceptable form of payment. Under the law, the coins -- which include American Gold and Silver Eagles -- are treated the same as U.S. dollars for tax purposes, eliminating capital gains taxes.
Since the face value of some U.S.-minted gold and silver coins -- like the one-ounce, $50 American Gold Eagle coin -- is so much less than the metal value (one ounce of gold is now worth more than $1,700), the new law allows the coins to be exchanged at their market value, based on weight and fineness.
"A Utah citizen, for example, could contract with another to sell his car for 10 one-ounce gold coins (approximately $17,000), or an independent contractor could arrange to be compensated in gold coins," said Rich Danker, a project director at the American Principles Project, a conservative public policy group in Washington, D.C.
South Carolina Republican Representative Mike Pitts proposed a currency system that would allow people to use any kind of silver or gold coin -- whether it's a Philippine Peso or a South African Krugerrand -- based on weight and fineness. Pitts said in the bill, which currently has 12 co-sponsors, that the state is facing "an economic crisis of severe magnitude."
Republican representatives from Washington State followed suit in January, introducing a bill that would also allow any gold and silver coins to be considered legal tender based on metal values. Minnesota, Iowa, Georgia, Idaho and Indiana are also considering similar proposals.
Many of the bills would make it possible for residents to exchange the physical coins for goods and services, so you could use coins to buy anything from groceries to a car as long as the store chooses to accept them.
However, most people aren't going to walk around with such valuable coins in their pockets, said Vieira. Plus, calculating the value of the coins -- especially if they come from different parts of the globe and are of different sizes and shapes -- will get tricky.
It's more likely that the states will create electronic depositories and accounts for the coins to make transactions easier, when and if the initial bills are passed, he said.
Utah Gold & Silver Depository is already developing a system where customers could use debit cards linked to their gold holdings. When customers swipe their debit cards to make transactions, physical gold and silver coins would be transferred between accounts in privately-owned depositories (or vaults) based on the market value of the metals.
Before deciding on a specific form of currency, some states -- including Minnesota, Tennessee, Virginia and North Carolina -- are considering proposals that would first require a committee to review their alternative currency plan.
The future of U.S. currency: The states' proposals have been gaining steam among Tea Partyers and Republicans, many of whom also endorse a nationwide return to the gold standard, which would require the U.S. dollar to be backed by gold reserves.
Tea Party "father" Ron Paul is sponsoring the "Free Competition in Currency Act," which would allow states to introduce their own currencies, and rival Newt Gingrich is calling for a commission to look at how the country can get back to the gold standard.
But it will be the individual states that could really get the ball rolling, said Vieira. Even if several of the current proposals get killed, the introduction of so many bills at the state level is drawing national attention to the issue, he said.
Of all the state proposals circulating right now, Republican-controlled states including South Carolina, Georgia, Idaho and Indiana have the best chance of passing their proposed bills this year, said American Principles Project's Danker. If just one or two states implement an alternative currency, it could have a Domino effect, he said.
"I think we could get a couple passed in this legislative session, and that would show this is mainstream, popular and it would be a justification for more of the risk-averse states for doing this," he said.
There are, of course, many people who think the recent push for alternative state currencies should be stopped in its tracks. David Parsley, a professor of economics and finance at Vanderbilt University, said he thinks state-issued currencies are a "terrible" idea.
"Having 50 Feds" could debase the U.S. dollar and even potentially lead the country into default, he said. "The single currency in the United States is working just fine," said Parsley. "I have no idea why anyone would want to destroy something so successful -- unless they actually wanted to destroy the country."