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Little Change Expected for State Equalization Board

Times Staff Writer

Taxes may be one of the hottest issues of this campaign season, but you wouldn’t know it by the races for the state’s powerful tax board.

The contests for the four elective seats on the little-known Board of Equalization, which collects taxes and hears taxpayer disputes, are unlikely to change the direction of the panel much.

Two of the June 6 primary races feature firmly entrenched incumbents facing weak or no opposition. The other two races are for safely partisan seats, for which the primary winners are virtually assured of victory in the November general election.

In the primary for the heavily Democratic District 4, which covers Los Angeles County, Judy Chu of Monterey Park faces Jerome Horton of Inglewood. Both leading Democrats are term-limited members of the state Assembly. Two other lesser-known Democrats -- Vonny T. Abbott, a Long Beach accountant, and Rita Rogers, a Los Angeles businesswoman -- are also on the ballot.

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Republican voters will choose among three candidates, although a Democrat is expected to prevail easily in the November general election. The Republican field includes Glen Forsch, a Burbank businessman; Sam Song Yong Park, a Monterey Park businessman; and John Y. Wong, a Commerce assessment board chairman.

In the mostly Republican District 3, outgoing GOP Assemblyman Ray Haynes of Murietta and Republican Party activist Michelle Steel of Rancho Palos Verdes are battling to represent the Inland Empire, Orange County, San Diego County and the sparsely inhabited desert areas. Three other Republicans -- Lewis A. Da Silva, a Palm Springs accountant; Steve Petruzzo, a La Mesa Equalization Board auditor; and Hal “Jimbo” Styles, a Desert Hot Springs businessman -- also are running.

The sole Democratic candidate, Mary Christian-Heising, a La Jolla editor and journalist, is expected to offer only token opposition to the GOP’s candidate in November.

Candidates in both contested races are adhering closely to the positions of their respective parties on the issues facing the Board of Equalization.

The Democratic candidates pledge to close loopholes in the state’s tax laws, boost enforcement and collect more from corporations and individuals who dodge taxes by doing business in the so-called underground economy. The Republican candidates present themselves as committed tax fighters and promise to give taxpayers fair hearings before the board when they have disputes over tax bills.

Meanwhile, races in the other two districts feature incumbents who face little or no primary opposition and are considered heavy favorites for reelection in November.

Democrat Betty Yee, an acting member of the board from San Francisco, has no challenger in the primary for District 1, along the central and north coast. Neither does Republican candidate David J. Neighbors, a certified public accountant from San Jose who has never held an elected political office. Yee is considered to be safely ensconced in the overwhelmingly Democratic district.

In District 2, Republican incumbent Bill Leonard of Sacramento, who represents most of the Central Valley and rural Northern California, is considered a good bet to defeat his underfunded challenger, Ed Streichman, a staff consultant with the Board of Equalization’s office in Fresno.

The Democratic contest features Tim Raboy, a Board of Equalization investigator who is a city councilman in his hometown of Galt in Sacramento County, and Tom Bright, a Sacramento printing executive. Neither Democrat is thought to pose much threat to the GOP in November.

Though obscure, the Board of Equalization plays an important role collecting much of the revenue that funds California’s government. Five people serve on it: the state controller and the four members elected from districts drawn by the state Legislature.

The board administers sales and use taxes, property taxes and special taxes to fund a variety of water, levee and other single-purpose districts. It also hears appeals from taxpayers unhappy with their tax bills. During fiscal year 2003-04, the board collected $44.5 billion in revenue on behalf of state and local governments. (The Franchise Tax Board oversees the state’s income tax system.)

The two Democrats competing in District 4 argue that the board could be collecting even more. Horton, who spent 21 years as a staff auditor and supervisor at the board’s Los Angeles office, said he wants to increase investigations, audits and prosecutions to crack down on corporate tax scofflaws.

“If I had my way, I’d lock them up and throw away the key,” he said. “Corporate tax cheats have no place in our society.”

Chu said she believes in strong enforcement combined with amnesties that give taxpayers a chance to pay back taxes. She sponsored a 2004 amnesty law that she said brought in $4 billion in tax revenue. She’s proposing another amnesty for payroll taxes paid by employers.

“We have to give them a chance to do the right thing,” she said.

In the Republican race, both Haynes and Steel stress their conservative, anti-tax views.

Haynes said he would use his influence at the board to ensure that future amnesty and enforcement programs are fairly administered and do not “penalize taxpayers if they are innocent.”

Steel said she’s “a rock-solid fiscal conservative,” who would be “the taxpayer’s advocate against the bureaucracy.”


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