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California Legislature

Troubled California tax board faces shakeup under legislation supported by Brown administration

Gov. Jerry Brown receives applause at his State of the State address before a joint session of the California Legislature last year. He supports an overhaul of the state tax board. (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)
Gov. Jerry Brown receives applause at his State of the State address before a joint session of the California Legislature last year. He supports an overhaul of the state tax board. (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

Gov. Jerry Brown and Democratic legislative leaders are proposing a shakeup of the state tax board that would eliminate many of its duties and shift the job of holding tax appeal hearings to a new office of administrative law judges, State Controller Betty Yee said Monday.

The legislation would also take away the ability of the elected Board of Equalization to get involved in day-to-day oversight of collecting sales taxes. Dubbed the "Taxpayer Transparency and Fairness Act of 2017,” the changes were introduced Monday and will be considered a part of the state budget, Yee said.

The board would continue to oversee the setting of some tax rates, but would be freed up to advocate for its constituents, including those appealing tax decisions, Yee said.

“I think it’s time,” said Yee, who serves on the board. “It’s sweeping. At the same time it’s good for the taxpayers in terms of efficiency and transparency.”

Republican Board member George Runner opposed the proposals Monday, saying it would amount to an expansion of the executive branch.

"This last-minute budget power grab would strip California taxpayers of their right to bring their tax appeals before their elected peers," Runner said. "In its place, the bill would establish yet another unelected and costly tax bureaucracy."

The five-member Board of Equalization currently employs 4,800 workers to set rates and collect $60 billion in taxes annually. The proposed change would move about 4,400 of the workers to a new California Department of Tax and Fee Administration, which would handle day-to-day tax collections work.

The board would continue to have responsibility for reviewing and adjusting property tax assessments, setting the rate for gas taxes and assessing taxes on pipelines, insurance companies and alcoholic beverages.

The legislation, which would take effect July 1, would also create a new Office of Tax Appeals, whose senior staff would be appointed by the governor. The office would include tax appeal panels consisting of three administrative law judges chosen by the director of the office.

Despite the reduction of board duties, the legislation would not reduce the board members' annual salaries of $142,577.

A representative of the governor declined comment, deferring to legislators involved in carrying the bills.

One of the proposals was introduced by Assemblyman Phil Ting (D-San Francisco), chairman of the Assembly Budget Committee.

Ting said the changes are needed in light of state audits, including one that found $350 million in sales tax revenue had been allocated to the wrong government accounts.

Brown had already temporarily stripped the Board of Equalization of its powers to hire and approve contracts after a state audit found board members had violated policies by having tax auditors help with parking and crowd control at conferences that benefited the members politically.

UPDATES

1 p.m.: This post was updated to include comments from Phil Ting and George Runner, as well as more details about the plan.

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