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Bay Area Legislator Says Fight Outside Campaign Cash ... By Taxing It

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Critics of the outsized role that independent political action committees now have in campaigns often talk about clamping down, imposing contribution limits and the like. But one brand-new idea in the state Capitol suggests something different: impose a tax.

The proposal, introduced just before the annual legislative bill deadline by Assemblyman Marc Levine (D-San Rafael), is about as straightforward as they come in Sacramento. It would require non-candidate campaign committees, known as "independent expenditure" committees in California political parlance, to pay a tax on pretty much every dollar they spend to help elect or defeat candidates -- a tax due within five days of its official disclosure on the spending.

"By taxing this behavior that has not been good for the democratic process," said Levine on Monday, "we can begin investing again in bringing Californians into the electoral process."

The money collected by the tax would go both to new efforts on the statewide level to engage voters (who have been AWOL of late) and to local officials who have struggled to pay for running election operations.

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How much will the tax be? Levine has left that part of Assembly Bill 1494 blank, deciding to instead wait for some give-and-take during legislative negotiations in the months to come.

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That being said, the Marin County legislator has his own number in mind: 10 percent.

"When we go to the store, we pay sales tax, which is upwards of 10 percent in many communities across California," said Levine. "We think this is a reasonable amount."

As far as anyone can tell, there's no comparable example in any state and California would be a national leader if this were to be signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown. The hurdles are numerous: The legislation requires a supermajority vote of each house of the Legislature; powerful interest groups across the political spectrum will no doubt see it as something that could divert their dollars away from influencing elections; and it's entirely possible that smart campaign attorneys would find ways to spend money from these political committees that wouldn't trigger the tax (perhaps by the familiar dodge of not expressly calling for someone to vote yes or no on a candidate).

Levine doesn't dispute any of that, but believes the time has come for a real debate -- considering legal rulings that limit the control over political cash and the ever-increasing tendency by interest groups to dump tens of millions of dollars into these committees that aren't affiliated with a candidate.

"It is easy to make the case that independent spending is having negative impacts on the political process," said the assemblyman.

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