When young tax attorney Chris Parker kicked off his stump speech during his 2010 run for the Board of Equalization, he didn't gush about the wonders of being a tax lawyer or even address what the hell the Board of Equalization does.
Rather, he regaled the assembled throngs with reminiscences of his days shoveling manure on the family farm. Stories about excrement, Parker says, resonate more with voters than lectures about taxes — which they dread — and explanations about what the Board of Equalization does — of which they are largely ignorant.
In fact, it's the nation's only statewide elected tax board; the arbiter of any cases involving sales, property, or income taxes; and the body collecting dozens of taxes and fees. All told, some 35 to 45 percent of the state's revenues pass through this board.
So, it may come as a surprise that a board so enmeshed in all things taxation is routinely overseen by people with no expertise in the matter. San Francisco Assemblywoman Fiona Ma, running against a Republican organic farmer for a seat on the board, is in position to make history: She claims she'd be just the second accountant to serve on the body since 1879, and the first since 1958.
It says a lot about California that a tax board responsible for so much state revenue has managed to stay so unencumbered with tax professionals. But that's the nature of electoral politics. The four statewide districts are huge — San Francisco is in the midst of one stretching from the Oregon border to Santa Barbara. This favors politicians with name recognition and access to fundraising resources (and explains why Parker lost his race to outgoing Republican State Sen. George Runner, a Tea Party darling and aficionado of pro-business policies and religion-saturated education).
Private-sector tax experts may snort at the $130,000 salary drawn by board members. But, for a public servant, that's damn good bread — especially when you're serving on a de facto political holding pen and stepping-stone. Former board members Judy Chu and Brad Sherman matriculated to Congress; John Chiang is now the state controller. Runner is typical in hopping onto the board after he was termed out of office. Current board chair Jerome Horton is a former assemblyman who may have his eye on once more overseeing matters transcending California tax arcana: In December he saw fit to release a statement regarding the death of Nelson Mandela.
Ma's CPA credentials render her atypical board fodder, but her status as a termed-out assemblywoman is par for the course. So are her aspirations. Down the road, she has her eye on running for lieutenant governor, treasurer, or controller.
An accountant, it turns out, can be as calculating as anyone.