Controller's race adds drama to Board of Equalization makeup

Fiona Ma -- The former Democratic assemblywoman and San Francisco supervisor is a certified public accountant and in the 1990s served on the San Francisco Assessment Appeals Board, which presided over corporate and personal property tax cases. Ma said she

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Despite overseeing more than $44 billion in yearly tax collections, California's Board of Equalization and the candidates on the Nov. 4 ballot for the wonky panel remain little known to most voters.

That obscurity tends to drain political drama from the campaigns for the board's four massive districts, each with roughly 9.5 million residents, and which for years have been evenly split between Democrats and Republicans.

Although the upcoming election doesn't promise to be an exception, there is a wild card.

The state controller serves as the fifth member of the board, giving an otherwise evenly split panel a partisan majority as well as its philosophical direction. Democrats have held the controller's office since 1975, but the race is competitive this year.

Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin, the Republican candidate for controller, captured the most votes in the June primary, although Democrat Betty Yee, a current member of the Board of Equalization, led in recent opinion polls.

Having a Republican majority on the board "would be devastating for California taxpayers," said Los Angeles Democrat Jerome Horton, a board member running for reelection for the district that includes Los Angeles and Ventura counties, as well as a portion of San Bernardino County.

Horton accused Republican members of the tax board of adhering to an anti-tax ideology and favoring corporations in tax disputes.

Republican board member George Runner, whose district comprises an inland swath of California that runs from San Bernardino County to the Oregon border, dismissed such criticism, saying unanimous votes on the board are common.

"My history shows that I have a philosophy that is sensitive to business," said Runner, who is running for a second term. "But I think for the most part, the board is not a very controversial place. We agree on a lot of things; a lot of votes are bipartisan."

The Board of Equalization oversees the collection of state sales and use taxes, including special taxes on cigarettes, gasoline, alcohol and new tires, as well as surcharges on utility and telephone bills. The board arbitrates taxpayer disputes with the state and determines eligibility for corporate tax breaks.

Board members, regardless of party, have faced criticism for being too cozy with companies and firms that come before them. In some cases, they have met representatives of those entities privately and collected thousands of dollars in campaign contribution from their special interest political-action committees.

"I think that there's often times people who make large contributions are at times given too much leeway,'' said Chris Parker, a Democrat and Sacramento tax attorney who is challenging Runner.

The Parker-Runner race may be the most competitive of the four Board of Equalization contests. Democrats hold a slight edge over Republicans in voter registration, but Runner has an advantage in fundraising and name recognition. Before being elected to the board in 2010, Runner served in the Legislature for 12 years.

The greatest challenge for board candidates is overcoming the lack of voter awareness about the political races and tax board in general, said Paul Mitchell, vice president of the bipartisan firm Political Data Inc.

"It's basically like putting voters in a very dimly lit room. They have very little to go on, and they are asked to vote between these two,'' Mitchell said.

Here are the candidates for the four Board of Equalization seats:

District 1

Runner -- The former Lancaster city councilman describes himself as a fiscal conservative and said state tax policy is so complex that both business and individuals should be given the "benefit of the doubt" in tax disputes with the state.

Parker -- Parker said he is the only tax professional and small businessman running for the seat. He wants the board to be more aggressive in tracking down tax cheats and believes that the current tax board kowtows to corporate interests.

District 2

Fiona Ma -- The former Democratic assemblywoman and San Francisco supervisor is a certified public accountant and in the 1990s served on the San Francisco Assessment Appeals Board, which presided over corporate and personal property tax cases. Ma said she has the experience to administer complex tax law and would push the Legislature to change tax laws that are unfair or difficult to implement or follow.

James E. Theis -- Theis, a Republican, is an organic-foods manager from Hollister. Theis did not return calls seeking comment about his candidacy. On his campaign website, Theis said he supports protecting taxpayer rights and open government. He also wants to provide amnesty for small businesses that owe less than $5,000 to the state.

District 3

Horton -- He is chairman of the Board of Equalization and was a member of the state Assembly and Inglewood City Council. Horton is pushing for an aggressive crackdown on tax cheats and the "underground economy," including manufacturers of counterfeit goods.

G. Rick Marshall -- The Republican from Torrance works in the information technology department at UC Irvine Medical Center. He was a write-in candidate in the June primary and collected 1,849 votes, enough to advance to the general election. He believes Californians are overtaxed and said he would work to simplify the state's complex tax code.

District 4

Diane L. Harkey -- The Republican state assemblywoman from Dana Point recently served as vice-chair of the Assembly's Revenue and Taxation Committee. Harkey, who did not return calls seeking comment, states on her website that she will oppose "any attempts to broaden the scope of California's tax policies."

Nader Shahatit -- The Highland Democrat is an auditor for the Board of Equalization. He supports lowering sales taxes, and providing tax incentives, to attract businesses to California. He believes state tax laws are too complex, which often results in businesses and individuals not paying the proper amount, and would work to simplify the tax-filing process.