Assemblyman Marc Levine floats bill to tax ‘dark money’ in politics

New legislation would impose a tax on independent expenditures, which is campaign spending done by outside groups, instead of by candidates or party committees.|

A North Coast lawmaker who benefited from outside money in his two successful bids for office now wants to curb such spending, claiming it turns voters off while rewarding powerful, behind-the-scenes interests.

“My intention is to create some accountability for those who influence elections by spending the most money,” said Assemblyman Marc Levine, D-San Rafael.

Levine introduced legislation last week that would impose a tax on independent expenditures, which is campaign spending done by outside groups, instead of by candidates or party committees.

The bill, AB 1494, has drawn statewide attention for its reform-minded attempt to stanch the flow of so-called dark money in politics. Since 2000, when a ballot initiative limited the amount that could be given directly to candidates, independent expenditures have averaged $40 million in each election cycle in California, with no candidate control over how that money is spent.

Levine’s bill does not yet specify how much independent expenditures would be taxed. However, the lawmaker, whose district encompasses Sonoma County south of College Avenue and Marin County, floated a figure of 10 percent. The money collected would go toward increasing civic engagement and promoting transparency in elections.

The legislation is sure to face opposition from myriad interests, including from lawmakers in both parties. Because it is a tax bill, its passage requires a two-thirds majority in the state Legislature.

“The likelihood this type of legislation will pass is damn close to zero,” said David McCuan, a political scientist at Sonoma State University.

He said were it to become law, it almost assuredly would face a court challenge. The U.S. Supreme Court has rejected a range of efforts to rein in outside money in politics on the grounds that doing so would be an unconstitutional limit on free speech.

But McCuan said Levine deserves credit for raising the issue.

“Absolutely, the conversation is important,” he said.

Levine has been both the beneficiary and target of independent expenditure committees, which under state law, cannot coordinate their efforts with candidates.

In 2012, Levine received a crucial boost from independent committees that poured $337,149 into his successful run against incumbent Assemblyman Michael Allen, who was the beneficiary of about $915,317 in such spending. The money spent on Levine’s behalf fueled attack ads labeling Allen as a Sacramento insider who had a history of ethics violations.

Last year, outside groups spent $125,705 on behalf of Levine, who knocked out several challengers on his way to an easy victory over a lesser-known Republican candidate in the November election.

Despite receiving support from outside money, Levine consistently has argued against the practice. He said taxing such spending will discourage it, and encourage voters to participate in the political process.

“We need to engage voters who have been turned away from the polls by special interests,” Levine said.

McCuan said outside money can just as easily galvanize voters in elections.

“It can stimulate turnout in close races, and it can also turn voters off,” McCuan said.

Levine said his legislation also applies to ballot issue committees, which are supposed to be used primarily to support or oppose proposed or pending ballot measures but have been used by lawmakers, including Levine, for other purposes.

Levine, for instance, last year spent $40,000 from a ballot measure committee he created called Elevate California on mailers opposing fracking. There were no ballot measures pending related to the controversial method of fossil fuel extraction.

The bulk of the $184,500 contributed to Elevate California to date has come from two sources: $152,000 contributed by John and Regina Scully, and $29,000 put in by Friends of Marc Levine for Assembly 2016, according to state campaign finance records.

In addition to the fracking mailers, records show Elevate California contributed $100,000 - in the form of independent expenditures - to Proposition 2, Gov. Jerry Brown’s so-called rainy day fund for the state, which earned voter approval last year.

Elevate California also paid out at least $38,000 to political consultants, records show.

Levine last week defended using Elevate California while at the same time introducing a tax bill to try and limit the influence of such money.

He made the case that independent expenditures, which are sometimes referred to as “super PACs,” are the root source of voter disgust, and that he included ballot committees such as Elevate California in his bill so as to not “discriminate.”

“I’m not treating myself any different than I would any other groups,” he said.

You can reach Staff Writer Derek Moore at 521-5336 or derek.moore@pressdemocrat.com. ?On Twitter @deadlinederek.

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