Proposed bill would tax some political campaigns

A Republican lawmaker wants to tax political campaigns and use the money to teach civics in schools and boost enforcement of the state’s election laws.

The idea from state Sen. Joe Fain, R-Auburn, is to treat candidates, initiative campaigns and political committees — including those run by the Democratic and Republican parties — like small companies and require them to pay business taxes if they collect enough in contributions.

He’s introduced Senate Bill 6232 to get it done. Eight senators, including Sen. Rosemary McAuliffe, D-Bothell, are co-sponsors.

“What better and more popular thing to tax than politicians” Fain told the Senate education committee at a recent hearing.

Fain didn’t get quizzed on whether it’s even legal to tax political activity in this manner.

If somehow it could be done, however, this is a good year to make money in this manner.

Elections attract big sums of money, especially this year when voters will be casting ballots for a president, U.S. senator, 10 members of Congress and a governor. Also every seat in the state House and about half of those in the Senate are on the ballot, though not Fain’s.

Four years ago, contributions totaled $166.1 million, according to records compiled by the state Public Disclosure Commission. Candidates hauled in $61.5 million and committees took in $104.6 million.

The tally doesn’t take into account federal races, which Fain’s bill aims to do.

Here’s how it would work.

Washington imposes a business and occupation tax — B&O for short — on the gross receipts of business activities conducted within the state. Fain’s bill would apply the rules to campaigns and committees. There is a threshold. A company will owe taxes if its receipts — or contributions in the case of a candidate — exceed $56,000 in a calendar year.

An analysis by the Department of Revenue estimates this would result in 2,000 new taxpayers, generate $937,000 for the state in the fiscal year that starts July 1 and $1.6 million in the next budget.

Who might pay? Both Dave Somers, Snohomish County’s new executive, and John Lovick, the former one would have paid something based on their 2015 campaigns. But none of Everett City Council candidates would owe taxes.

Fain’s bill would steer part of the revenues to the Secretary of State’s Office to develop a curriculum for teaching civics to students in secondary schools and colleges.

“Why is this not an obvious one to do especially when you can use the money to give us a civically literate society,” Fain said following the hearing.

Another chunk would go to the Public Disclosure Commission to bolster its ability to investigate campaign complaints.

And a third less altruistic reason is to make everyone running for office experience what small business owners go through with taxes, he said.

“I do want every state elected official to fill out a B&O form,” he said.

Though it seems unlikely this bill will reach the governor’s desk, it is still moving in that direction.

Sen. Steve Litzow, R-Mercer Island, who heads the education panel and is a co-sponsor, said he intends to move it to the Ways and Means Committee where the chairman, Sen. Andy Hill, R-Redmond, also is a backer of the bill.

There’s no organized opposition. Maybe that’s because, as Fain said, there’s not a more deserving group to tax than politicians.

Political reporter Jerry Cornfield’s blog, The Petri Dish, is at Contact him at 360-352-8623; and on Twitter at @dospueblos.

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