California is the only state with an elected tax commission, and this year 11 candidates are vying for positions on the panel.
The obscure yet powerful Board of Equalization is responsible for administering tax policies and ruling on appeals from businesses and residents.
Four members are elected to represent vast districts, each with roughly 9.5 million residents. A fifth seat on the board is filled by the state controller.
"Our job is to minimize the frustration of taxation," said Jerome Horton, a Democrat and the board's chairman. A former legislator, he is running unopposed for reelection to his second full term, representing the Los Angeles area.
The competition is particularly heated for a seat in the southern district that includes Republican strongholds of San Diego and Orange counties.
Assemblywoman Diane Harkey (R-Dana Point) is facing off against Republicans Van Tran and Shirley Horton, who each served several years in the state Legislature.
The post is an attractive one for Republicans, who face long odds in contests for many other state posts in overwhelmingly Democratic California.
And "it's a position that allows you to burnish your tax-fighting credentials," said Reed Galen, a Republican consultant based in Orange County. "That's what makes it such a valuable seat for Republicans."
Other candidates include Republicans Lewis Da Silva and John F. Kelly, as well as Democrat Nader Shahatit.
The seat is being vacated by Republican Michelle Steel, who served two terms and is now running for Orange County supervisor.
Candidates said they want to make the Board of Equalization more business-friendly.
Harkey, who was elected to the Assembly in 2008, is concerned the state is wasting too much money going after small businesses for small amounts of unpaid taxes.
"Let's not spend more state money auditing than we'd actually collect," she said.
Shirley Horton said she's concerned that California's tax policies are too complicated, tripping up companies that are otherwise trying to play by the rules.
"Sometimes we need to make the process more simple and more fair," she said.
Tran said he'd also like the board to be more conciliatory toward businesses, given what he says are California's high tax rates.
"As an elected official, I would have a megaphone to talk about these issues and an opportunity to work with my former legislative colleagues," he said.
Another competitive race is taking shape in the district that includes almost all of inland California, from San Bernardino to Modoc counties.
Incumbent George Runner, a Republican and former state lawmaker, is trying to fend off a challenge from Chris Parker, a Democrat and attorney at the Franchise Tax Board, an agency that collects income and corporate taxes. Runner beat Parker in 2010 to win the board seat.
Parker wants to consolidate various tax services currently provided by multiple agencies. He said his expertise makes him a good fit for the job.
"It's beyond time that we put tax people on a tax board," he said.
District lines have been redrawn since the last board election. Parker hopes the new boundaries, which gave Democrats an edge over Republicans in voter registration, work in his favor.
Runner brushed off Parker's concerns about expertise. He pledged to continue helping businesses avoid getting tangled in complicated tax laws.
"Most people get into trouble not because they don't want to comply, but because they get caught up in some very strange tax laws," he said.
Former Assemblywoman Fiona Ma, a Democrat from San Francisco, is running to represent the Board of Equalization district that includes coastal areas from the Oregon border south to Santa Barbara.
Her only opponent is Republican James Theis of Hollister, a manager at an organic foods company.
Theis said he'd like to waive penalties on overdue tax bills of less than $10,000, encouraging businesses to pay up. He said that would save resources needed to track down much larger sums.
He has never run for elected office before, which he said wasn't a handicap.
"All this position needs is common sense," Theis said. "That's what I'd like to bring to this."Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times