A sales tax on political campaigns

St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist Bill McClellan came up with a great idea for raising much-needed revenue for public services and projects the other day. Bill suggested a 20% tax on campaign contributions.


This idea has several great possibilities. So let’s flesh out his idea a little bit because Bill didn’t specify what kind of tax this should be.

Every two years, enormous wads of money are spent trying to convince us to buy something. A candidate. Or an issue. The merchandising of candidates and issues dominates our airwaves and our websites. They clog our mail boxes and our telephone answering machines if we’re lucky enough to not be at home when the call comes in. But like the merchandising of tobacco, the merchandising of these products is under-taxed or not taxed at all. .

The state of Missouri and its political subdivisions spend millions of dollars a year paying for elections. But the people getting elected or getting their issues before the voters don’t have any financial responsibility for financing those elections that will benefit them or their issues. Millions of dollars are spent, sometimes by one person or special interest group to (as critics would put it) buy a law or a part of the constitution. Millions are spent by candidates trying to convince us—often by shading the truth–they should be trusted to represent us in our government. They’d probably argue that requiring their campaigns to support the system that elects them would be a tax on Freedom of Speech. And there might be some merit in that argument. Surely, however, the clever wordsmiths who write our laws or our petition issues can find a way to show such a system would actually enhance their Freedom of Speech.

There would be another advantage to adopting the McClellan Plan. Many of these same people who benefit from big campaign donating have been heard to moan about the influence of big money in our politics today. McClellan’s tax idea could help alleviate that moaning.
Those who complain about “job killing taxes” are often the same ones who advocate low taxes because “you get less of what you tax and more of what you don’t tax” or words to that effect.

Nothing proves their point more than campaign funding. The state doesn’t tax it and we sure are getting more of it.
So the answer is clear: If you want campaign spending reductions, tax campaign donations.
Of course that would be a job-killing tax, wouldn’t it? And the jobs that would be killed might include those who think money is more important than words and actions in campaigns, including candidates and consultants.

But just think of this. How much are candidate spending in races for the United States Senate these days? Or for Governor? Twenty-million dollars or more? Twenty percent of that would be four million dollars. That would pay a lot of election expenses. The Secretary of State’s office says it spent seven million dollars to hold the most recent Missouri presidential primary.
McClellan thinks the tax would be great at the national level, too.

And on top of everything else, it would be an equalizer for the citizens. Look at your tax forms. Our federal income tax form asks us if we would like to contribute $3 for the Presidential Election Campaign Fund. Our own government is asking us if we want to tax ourselves to pay for presidential candidates to run for office. Maybe more people would check the “yes” box if they thought the campaigns were making a payment, too. And taxing presidential campaign donations from Missourians would increase the financial benefit to the state.
(The Missouri income tax form does not ask us if we’d like to donate part of our refunds to any campaign fund. But it does list twenty trust funds to which Missourians can make donations. Twenty).

We will not hold our breath waiting for one of those who spend all this money to suggest a law that would require them to help pay for the system that puts their names before voters and themselves in seats of power.

It’s going to take a petition campaign to get this system on the books.

Perhaps an altruistic multi-millionaire who has experience financing petition drives would like to get behind the McClellan Plan, which logically could be considered a sales tax because that’s what campaigns do—sell candidates or issues. Some might even consider it a pretty fair tax to enact.

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