Dan Walters

Opinion: Vietnam veteran battles for enforcement of a 122-year-old law

Bill Connell makes his living with a hot dog stand in the scenic little coastal community of Carpinteria, aptly called “Surf Dogs.”

But Connell’s passion isn’t dispensing tube steaks to surfers and tourists. Rather, for 22 years, it’s been persuading – as forcefully as he can – politicians and bureaucrats in Sacramento to honor a 122-year-old California law exempting military veterans who peddle low-cost goods from paying taxes and license fees.

Connell, a Vietnam War veteran who gets around with the help of a cane, has filed lawsuits and pestered legislators and officials at the state Board of Equalization, which administers sales tax laws.

For years, he battled the Board of Equalization, which interpreted Business and Professions Code, Section 16102 as exempting the veterans from local license fees and taxes but not state sales taxes. He lost one suit against the BOE in the trial court, then two others, but in 2010 the BOE agreed in a settlement to refund Connell’s own tax payments.

Connell also was seeking legislation for all veterans, and in 2009 the Legislature granted sales tax relief for three years, and later extended the exemption to 2022.

Last year, in a bill carried by his own legislator, Santa Barbara Assemblyman Das Williams, the Legislature decreed that “qualified veterans” could get sales tax refunds for the 2002-2010 period, with a $50,000 maximum on total refunds and a Dec. 31, 2015, time limit for claims.

End of story? Not quite.

The Board of Equalization was supposed to take steps to notify veterans about the refunds. But Connell complains that it has been lackadaisical, failing to utilize the network of veterans’ organizations to spread the word.

Last month, the board’s staff told Connell in a letter that it had received just one claim for a refund. He sees that as proof that with just a few months remaining in the refund period, the notification process is failing.

“If you have a refund coming and nobody tells us, what the hell is going on? It never hit any of the veterans’ groups,” Connell said the other day on one of his frequent trips to Sacramento, this time to admonish the five-member board during one of its meetings.

However, BOE staffers say they’ve been diligent about seeking out veterans who might qualify for the refunds.

“Staff from the BOE’s sales and use tax department has been working with Mr. Connell since mid-November of last year to reach out to those who might be eligible for the tax repayment in AB 919,” BOE spokeswoman Venus Stromberg said in an email.

She added that BOE sent notices to veterans identified as potential beneficiaries and to chambers of commerce, added a special notice on its website, and recruited the Department of Veterans Affairs to contact veterans’ organizations.

It’s not satisfactory to Connell. “Nobody has any notification,” he said, worrying that with time running out, his crusade might come to naught.