Candidates for the State Board of Equalization--the only elected tax appeals board of its kind in the nation--tend to spend as much time explaining what they are running for as why they running.
Arguably the most obscure of the state's elected officials, board members also are among the highest paid and most secure. With salary raises effective in January, they will receive $82,000 a year, trailing only the governor and state Supreme Court justices. They will continue to have use of state cars, their own staffs and field offices.
In the 107-year history of the board, only four incumbents have been known to lose reelection bids.
The five-member board is in charge of collecting and distributing sales, gas and cigarette taxes, both state and local. It also decides on tax bill disputes ranging from individual homeowner property taxes to gray areas in sales tax collections by businesses. Its interpretations and applications of complex tax laws can cost or save businesses millions of dollars.
Candidates for three board seats are on the Nov. 4 ballot, all in districts fully or partially in Southern California. Two incumbents and a state senator are the favorites in typically quiet races.
What excitement there has been this year in the Board of Equalization campaigns came before the June primary when State Sen. Paul B. Carpenter (D-Cypress) spent more than $500,000 to defeat Los Angeles County Assessor Alexander Pope and former state Sen. Nate Holden for the Democratic nomination to fill a rare open seat. The opening was created by the retirement of 4th District board member Richard Nevins, a Democrat who served 28 years. When he leaves office, Nevins will begin receiving a record pension for a retired California official, $181,386 a year.
The registration in the district, which includes most of Los Angeles County south of the Santa Monica Mountains, is 57% Democratic. With the registration edge, his fund-raising ability and his name recognition, Carpenter is confident of general election victory.
Carpenter, who has Nevins' endorsement and the backing of the influential Westside political organization headed by Democratic Reps. Howard Berman and Henry Waxman, plans to spend about $100,000 on the current race, with most of it going for mailers.
With 12 years in the Legislature, Carpenter said his presence on the board would help it push tax legislation that it wants.
An unsuccessful candidate for the U.S. Senate in 1982, Carpenter sees political opportunities at the Board of Equalization, despite its history of anonymity. He noted the board is developing a new computerized information system that could provide a bounty of newsy, up-to-the-minute information on the state's economy "in a way that no one in California has seen before."
His Republican opponent, Inglewood City Treasurer H. Stanley Jones, reported spending only about $2,500 as of Sept. 30, although he said he has raised several thousand dollars more since then.
Call for Merger
Jones, a certified public accountant who holds a doctorate in law and a master's degree in business administration, claims he is better qualified for the technical and quasi-judicial responsibilities of the board.
Both candidates have called for a cost-cutting merger of the Board of Equalization and the state Franchise Tax Board. And both support simplifying collection of state income taxes by basing state tax strictly on federal tax.
Jones has questioned Carpenter's fitness for the office, citing a $2,000 fine assessed against him last year by the state Fair Political Practices Commission. The penalty was the result of two last-minute Carpenter mailings in a 1984 campaign that did not include proper identification of the source.
Carpenter said Jones is desperate and "searching for any reed in a storm" and claimed the violation was based on a "technical" error made by a printer.
Others in the race are Libertarian Party candidate Stephen Malmberg, a businessman from Los Angeles, and Peace and Freedom Party candidate Lewis McCammon, a Los Angeles teacher.
In the 2nd District, which includes part of West Los Angeles, Santa Monica, the San Fernando Valley and areas stretching north to San Francisco, incumbent Conway Collis, an ambitious, well-connected Democrat, appears to face no serious threat in a district that is 50% Democratic and 38% Republican. As of Sept. 30, Collis had about $176,000 on hand in his campaign coffers, while his GOP opponent had only $9,400.
Collis said he plans to spend nearly $200,000 on television advertising. The 30-second ads, unusual in a board race, are intended to increase public awareness of the board and do not reflect concern about his reelection chances, Collis said. The ads also could be expected to boost Collis' name identification for a future run at higher office.