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Some Politics Won't Fit on Bumper Sticker

Despite its power, candidates for the Board of Equalization must struggle to get voters to understand what it does.

November 01, 2002|Nancy Vogel | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO -- The first question State Board of Equalization candidates typically get from voters doesn't have a simple answer.

"What they ask me, No. 1, is, 'What is the Board of Equalization?' " said Tom Y. Santos, a Democratic candidate who has been shaking hands at fairs and community forums from Red Bluff to Ventura as he seeks a seat on the tax-collecting panel.

Each member of the board represents more than 8 million people, a constituency 10 times the size of the typical state senator's.

But even the candidates call the office "unsexy," "unglamorous" and "invisible." It's tough to debate the issues of the day when they involve uniformity of property tax assessment and valuation of possessory interest.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday November 02, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 6 inches; 244 words Type of Material: Correction
Tax holiday -- A story about Board of Equalization candidates in Friday's California section incorrectly characterized Republican candidate Glen R. Forsch's proposal for a sales tax holiday as annual. Forsch seeks a monthly sales tax holiday.

"Unfortunately there are no debate opportunities. There are no meet-the-public opportunities," said Kenneth A. Weissman, Libertarian candidate in the district that includes Los Angeles.

"As a candidate for what's perceived as a minor office, there's nothing favorable I can do to generate publicity. I'm not willing to streak naked through downtown Los Angeles."

One million California businesses pay taxes or fees to the Board of Equalization. The agency, with 4,000 employees, administers sales-and-use taxes and fees or taxes on fuel, liquor, cigarettes and other goods. It also serves as a sort of appeals court for people disputing franchise and personal income taxes. Last year the agency collected 34% of the money that runs state government.

The board is made up of four elected members and the California controller, who is elected statewide. Republicans have not held a majority on the board since 1958, but could gain three votes this year if Tom McClintock, the Republican candidate for controller, defeats Democrat Steve Westly in what has been a close race.

Created 123 years ago to make property tax collection consistent from county to county, the board's $131,250-a-year positions have been sought lately by politicians ousted from the Legislature by term limits.

Democrat Carole Migden, looking for work after six years in the Assembly, will become California's first openly gay constitutional officer if she wins Tuesday's election. She is running against Republican Mark S. Bendick and Libertarian Elizabeth C. Brierly in the heavily Democratic 1st District, which stretches along the northern and central coast.

Similarly, Republican Bill Leonard, with 24 years in the Legislature, seeks the Board of Equalization seat for the vast 2nd District. He and Migden stand to benefit from districts drawn to their advantage by colleagues in the Legislature last year. The 2nd District includes a narrow finger stretching east from Los Angeles County to Leonard's San Bernardino house.

Two current board members are seeking reelection. John Chiang, a Democrat serving the Democratic-leaning 4th District centered in Los Angeles, has distinguished himself by sponsoring tax law workshops for businesses, nonprofits and churches, as well as seminars on college financing and retirement.

"I want to do something that impacts people's daily lives," he said.

Republican Claude Parrish wants another four-year term in the Republican-leaning 3rd District, which includes San Bernardino, Riverside, Imperial and San Diego counties.

He prides himself on having "ripped out the phone maze" in his district so that taxpayers reach a real person when they call. He plans to open an eighth office in his district, in Long Beach, so people don't have to drive so far to pay their tax bills.

Board of Equalization candidates usually don't bother with television advertising. Instead, campaigning for this down-ballot race usually involves yard signs, billboards and pamphlets published by endorsement groups.

Still, some candidates have raised hundreds of thousands of dollars, much of it from big corporations that stand to gain or lose millions through the panel's decisions.

In 1990, the Legislature imposed tougher conflict-of-interest rules on the Board of Equalization than apply to the lawmakers themselves. Board members must recuse themselves or return donations before voting on issues that affect companies that have given them $250 or more in the previous year. The rule explains why many companies donate $249 to the candidates.

But many big businesses dodge the restriction completely. They donate to the Taxpayers Political Action Committee, which then funnels thousands of dollars to board candidates.

TaxPAC donors are predominantly utility, pipeline, phone and railroad companies whose property is assessed by the board.

They include Southern California Edison, Pacific Gas & Electric, Pacific Telesis Group, AT&T Wireless Services and Union Pacific Railroad.

In the last two years, TaxPAC in turn has contributed $45,000 to Parrish, $35,000 to Leonard, $15,000 to Chiang and $50,000 to Westly.

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