California Treasurer Fiona Ma’s appeal to Governor Newsom to intervene with the California Department of Tax and Fee Administration (CDTFA) to prevent the pursuit of third-party small business sellers for back taxes is a just cause. But the fact that she has to appeal to the executive for relief highlights a concern raised two years ago at the time of the creation of the CDTFA—appointed rather than elected tax oversight officials could be a detriment to taxpayers.
Treasurer Ma’s letter to the governor focused on CDTFA’s efforts to warn third-party sellers using online retail platforms that they owed taxes under state law, and in some cases owe up to eight years in back taxes. Ma contends that threatening fines and jail time to small entrepreneurs in an online selling environment in which they have little control is an “unlawful, unconstitutional and impractical” action by the CDTFA.
The five-page letter to the governor defends the small businesses, some which could be bankrupted by the state agency’s demand. The issue centers around the U.S. Supreme Court’s Wayfair decision and involves the storage of goods sold by the online retailers in warehouses located in California.
But let’s go beyond the details of the dispute to revisit an important issue raised at the time the elected state Board of Equalization was neutered by the governor and legislature taking some of the tax appeal powers away from the elected board.
While the Board of Equalization may have needed reforms, officials directly voted in to office should administer a newly created tax oversight authority.
An elected tax administration would be more sympathetic to the plight of the taxpayers and the voters that elected them. An appointed board is more likely to consider the wishes of the government authorities that appoint them, especially with California’s seemingly endless quest for more and more tax revenue.
On the local level, California assessors who set the value of property for tax purposes are elected. Treasurer-Tax collectors in 55 of the 58 counties are all elected. Those who deal with the issue of tax collection should be directly responsible to the people.
For taxpayers, a bureaucracy is much more difficult to work with.
The governor doesn’t have the ability to intervene on all questionable tax judgments. That should be the role of officials elected directly by the voters. But California changed the rules of the game and taxpayers likely will be the worse for it.