The State Worker

Board member asks Jerry Brown to take over troubled California tax collection agency

The Board of Equalization headquarters, seen here in 2014.
The Board of Equalization headquarters, seen here in 2014. bnguyen@sacbee.com

A critical audit of the Board of Equalization is not yet public, but it’s already prompting demands for changes at an agency that collects $60 billion a year in tax revenue.

Board member Fiona Ma on Monday sent a letter to Gov. Jerry Brown asking him to appoint a public trustee to oversee the agency.

“This extraordinary step is necessary to restore public trust and to address the various serious issues outlined by the recent” audit, she wrote.

She’s referring to an audit by the Department of Finance that revealed slippery accounting, elected leaders steering resources to events that promote themselves and a climate of fear among civil servants who worry about crossing board members.

The Bee reviewed a copy of the report last week and it is scheduled for public release later this week.

Ma wants a public trustee to appoint a chief legal counsel, standardize tax collection policies at the agency’s field offices, create a complaint hotline for taxpayers and internal whistleblowers, and empower local field offices where agency employees work directly with taxpayers.

The Board of Equalization is a unique tax-collecting agency that has five elected board members setting tax policy and weighing appeals. The soon-to-be released audit shows that the board has tripled its spending on printed materials and events that appear to promote board members.

The agency is heading in to a series of budget hearings over the next few weeks where some of the issues highlighted by the audit could be discussed. Ma, who is running for state treasurer, told The Sacramento Bee that she wanted her letter to spark a conversation between the board, lawmakers and the governor about how to improve the agency’s policies.

“I feel like we need help from the governor,” she said.

One of her colleagues, board member George Runner, disagreed. He has said the board has taken steps to correct the weaknesses identified in the report over the past year by appointing a new executive director and by restricting some of the activities the board members can promote.

“The majority of the board is capable of addressing and solving the issues found in the audit,” he said.

Brown at a press conference on Wednesday said he’d consider Ma’s request, but he sounded reluctant to appoint a trustee.

“Don’t we have enough people already?” he asked. “We have elected people, we have civil servants, but, we’ll look at it.”

Adam Ashton: 916-321-1063, @Adam_Ashton. Sign up for state worker news alerts at sacbee.com/newsletters.

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