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Tax board likely to be evenly divided

Its seats are expected to go to two Republicans and two Democrats, with the new state controller determining policy direction.

November 05, 2006|Christian Berthelsen | Times Staff Writer

In the next few years, the powerful state panel that oversees more than $40 billion in yearly tax collections will have huge policy decisions to settle.

Oil refineries seek to lower their property tax bills as their profits soar. Power companies want to eliminate their property taxes, claiming the state's volatile electricity market has left their facilities worthless. And who will be on the hook for $100 million in tax credits awarded to companies under a program that was intended to develop jobs for the poor but didn't?

The elections for the four Board of Equalization members and state controller will determine how those issues are decided. The board's districts are drawn to practically ensure the election of two Democrats and two Republicans. Because voters' attitudes about taxes are so closely intertwined with party identity, and because so little attention is paid to the candidates, equalization board members may be selected by people voting their party's ticket.

"This is the most partisan race in California," said Bill Leonard, a Republican incumbent whose inland district stretches from northern Los Angeles County to the Oregon border. "People know so little about the board members.... They know the name, the party, the ballot title and that's probably all they know."

The majority on the panel -- and thus its philosophical direction -- probably will be determined by the outcome of the controller's race because that official serves as the fifth member of the board. Former Republican Assemblyman Tony Strickland of Moorpark is locked in a fierce battle with Democrat John Chiang of Torrance, the current chairman of the tax panel.

The majority selects the chairman of the board, and both the chairman and the controller serve on the Franchise Tax Board, the state's tax collection agency.

"The key is really the controller's race," said Democratic panel member Betty T. Yee, who represents the northern coastal district and is expected to cruise to easy reelection. "That's where all eyes are right now."

Yee and Leonard face nominal opposition. Yee's challenger is David J. Neighbors, a Republican accountant, while Leonard faces Tim Raboy, a Democratic investigator for the tax board.

The two newcomers who are heavily favored to win are Republican Michelle Steel, in a mostly inland district that stretches to the Mexican border, and Democratic Assemblywoman Judy Chu, in a district that covers much of the metropolitan Los Angeles area. Steel is facing Democrat Mary Christian-Helsing, a La Jolla journalist, and Chu's challenger is Republican Glen Forsch, a commercial property owner.

Incumbents Chiang and Claude Parrish are termed out.

Chu and Yee say one of their priorities is to improve the board's collection of taxes owed to the state. As an assemblywoman, Chu sponsored a tax amnesty bill that generated $4.8 billion in receipts.

Forsch went from business to business in the Los Angeles area Saturday morning trying to drum up votes. He dismissed any notion that districts are drawn to favor particular parties and said he was still campaigning as intensely as he could.

"We have to work real hard," he said. "That's what it's all about. Politics are going to be involved no matter which way the districts are drawn."

Lenny Goldberg, executive director of the California Tax Reform Assn., disagreed. "What we're looking at is the result of safe-seat reapportionment," Goldberg said. "They're pretty much safe seats all around."



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Early voting is no longer available to Orange County voters.

The deadline for registering to vote has passed.

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