Some candidates for State Board of Equalization are running to abolish the obscure agency

By Gary Walker

Some lawmakers want to abolish the State Board of Equalization. Others believe it’s still a viable governing body. Whatever its ultimate fate, Gov. Jerry Brown and the Legislature have already stripped much of the tax-collection board’s authority and duties in the wake of a 2017 audit that uncovered rampant nepotism and the mishandling of tens of millions of dollars.

Campaigns for geography-bound seats on the board get little voter attention, overshadowed by a glut of advertising and news coverage for higher-profile statewide contests. Although board members received a salary of $146,000 last year for overseeing the collection of about $60 billion in sales and use taxes on jet fuel, marijuana and hazardous waste, the agency is practically invisible to the average voter.

“There are so many offices up for election it is tough for voters to keep track of them all,” said Robert Stern, vice president of Californians Aware, a nonprofit government watchdog and free speech advocacy group.

This year might be a little different, if only due to public outrage over the findings of the audit — like a $130,000 expenditure on designer office furniture by Board Chairman Jerome Horton, who currently represents Los Angeles, Ventura and San Bernardino counties on the board but terms out this year.

Five hopefuls are vying to replace Horton in June 5’s nonpartisan “jungle primary” free-for-all: Santa Monica City Councilman Tony Vazquez, former Culver City Councilman Micheál “Mehaul” O’Leary, Los Angeles Community College District Board President Scott Svonkin, tax attorney Cheryl Turner, and retired economist and television reporter Doug Kriegel. The top two vote getters will move on to a November runoff.

Meanwhile, former members of the board and some major newspapers are calling for a constitutional amendment that, with voter approval, would abolish the agency — a plan O’Leary and Kriegel support.

“It’s time to get rid of the board. I want to continue that fight once I’m elected,” said O’Leary, former owner of the pub Joxer’s Daly. “It’s been a lovely landing spot for termed-out elected officials, but not [good] for government efficiency.”

“It needs to be reformed. The story about the scandal didn’t get much coverage. I want to run to get the story about the corruption out to the public,” said Kriegel. “I think [the Legislature] should let the people decide whether they should get rid of it.”

Stern agrees, in part because the five-member board (four district representatives and the state controller) isn’t what it used to be.

“The power of that office has been so seriously depleted by the Legislature that the office probably should be abolished,” Stern said.

Others running for Horton’s seat say they’re running to restore the board’s viability.

“This is an agency that was created by the state constitution. Why would we abolish something that was created to provide protection to taxpayers?” said Turner. “We need to reform it, but not abolish it.”

“The Board of Equalization is a constitutionally created office designed to help California taxpayers and to ensure that corporations pay their taxes. It’s clear that these two candidates don’t understand how the board works or its authority,” Svonkin said of O’Leary and Kriegel.

Vazquez says his budgeting experience on the Santa Monica City Council and a number of other local governing boards proves he knows how to “get things done.” Some opponents have tried to use that experience against him, however, by reminding voters of a Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office conflict of interest investigation launched after news reports that his wife, a Santa Monica school board member, had voted in support of contracts benefiting companies for which Vazquez had done consulting work. Prosecutors have not said they are investigating Vazquez, a message being spread by some of his opponents.

{Editor’s Note: The paragraph above has been corrected and changed to reflect that county prosecutors have not stated that Vazquez is under investigation.}

State lawmakers will ultimately decide whether to consolidate the functions of the State Board of Equalization with other state departments, “but at this point the department exists and it should be run efficiently,” said Vazquez. “I believe that the Board of Equalization can perform an important role in providing services to taxpayers and small businesses.”

In an unusual move for a state race, Svonkin has challenged the other candidates, especially Vazquez, to publicly release their tax returns, as he has chosen to do.

“I believe that in order to restore the public trust we have to be open and share our plans and our taxes with the public. That goes double for my opponent Tony Vazquez, who is running for an office that should be about ethics and transparency, yet refused to be transparent on his personal financial disclosure forms, and is under investigation for conflicts of interest,” Svonkin said.

Elected officials and candidates for office in California are not required to release tax documents but must disclose their personal holdings by filing a Statement of Economic Interests with the Fair Political Practices Commission.

Vazquez and Turner called Svonkin’s focus on taxes records a distraction.

“The financial disclosure forms that every candidate and office holder files is the best mechanism for preventing conflicts of interest. Asking candidates to release tax records is a campaign stunt,” Vazquez said.

Turner said candidates without a background in finance or tax policy should raise red flags, and that she’s not about to let Svonkin force her to behave in a way that isn’t customary for the office.

“The tax return issue is a red herring. The real issue is Scott Svonkin’s fitness to serve on the Board of Equalization when he has repeatedly demonstrated a propensity to bully others whenever and wherever he has served as an elected official,” she said.

Svonkin said he’s running for the board primarily to ensure that taxes owed becomes taxes paid.

“If I can work to collect taxes from corporations that don’t pay their fair share, we will be able to afford to make public education stronger and keep our neighborhoods safe,” he said.

O’Leary and Kriegel said they would make their returns public if they won, even as they worked to abolish the agency.

“There’s nothing that I need to hide from the public. It would be disingenuous to get on a tax board and not open the doors to your books,” O’Leary said.

“You can say that I’m running to get rid of the board, but if I am elected I could certainly do the job,” said Kriegel. “But even if I don’t get the job, I’m going to continue to push for [abolishing it].”