Sally Lieber, a Mountain View City Council member and former state Assembly member, is throwing her hat in the ring to join the California Board of Equalization, vowing to keep a close watch on the state's tax income and the important services they finance.
Though not the most well-known state office — and one that has shrunk in terms of responsibilities in recent years — Lieber said the Board of Equalization still plays an important role. She said she wants to make sure California's tax system treats everyone equitably and ensures big private companies pay their fair share.
"I am motivated to bring in the resources we need to fully fund education and have health care provided for people who need it, and get to the next step for housing, transportation and all the good things we want to do," Lieber said.
Lieber is running for District 2 of the Board of Equalization, which covers a massive area of the state spanning from the Oregon border down to the Ventura County line, including all of the Bay Area. The area covers about 10.7 million residents, of whom 6.6 million are registered voters, Lieber said.
Four people serve on the board along with the state Controller, and oversee an agency that has a responsibility under the California Constitution to ensure all 58 counties across the state are appraising property values in a uniform way. The state agency also reviews tax assessments on insurers, public utilities and railroad companies, as well as certain assessment appeals.
Lieber is one of three candidates vying for the seat in the June 7 primary. Also running are Michela Alioto-Pier, a former San Francisco supervisor listed as a small business owner, and Peter Coe Verbica, an investment adviser and the only Republican in the race. The top two vote-getters will move on to the November election.
Lieber said she feels qualified for the job, and that her years of experience handling both state and local budgets — particularly in rough economic times — will come in handy if she is elected. Her early endorsements include the California Democratic Party, the California Teachers Association and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME).
Local politicians lending their support include Santa Clara County supervisors Joe Simitian and Cindy Chavez as well as San Mateo County supervisors Dave Pine and David Canepa, according to Lieber.
In her bid to join the Board of Equalization, Lieber describes herself as someone who will be inoculated against corporate influence, describing herself as a "corporate-free" candidate who will refuse to take money from special interests. The issue of influence and lobbying efforts is particularly important for the board, which Lieber said is particularly vulnerable to corporate meddling.
"The BOE is the only elected tax body in the U.S., and there are some good things about that in terms of being responsive and being able to raise issues," she said. "But there have been things that have been very unfortunate, where there's been the reality of a pay-to-play kind of system."
In response to multiple scandals and a scathing critique by the state's Department of Finance, the state Legislature in 2017 severely curtailed the role of the Board of Equalization, taking away its job of administering sales and use taxes and excise taxes. Most of those functions have since moved to other state agencies, reducing the board's staff from 4,800 people to just 400.
The Legislature cited numerous problems with the board, including "numerous complaints concerning members of the State Board of Equalization and their staff's attempt to influence the audits, investigations, and collections activities of the board's civil service employees."
To Lieber, it's important to make sure all 58 county assessors are assessing properties appropriately and don't fall victim to political influence, and that the Board of Equalization has a responsibility to conduct sunshine audits and assessments of county assessors. She said she is a proponent of more frequent reassessments of large corporate properties, and supports a split roll initiative that would protect homeowners while providing a "reasonable" assessment of commercial properties.
Even after the 2017 changes, Lieber said she anticipates more rounds of legislation changing the function of the Board of Equalization, and that she would go into the role with an open mind. Any agency that fails to serve taxpayers should be eliminated if the state Legislature makes that determination, she said, balanced against the need to ensure California is collecting its full tax revenue.
"I'm for whatever makes fiscal sense for the taxpayers," she said.
The big question in Mountain View is whether Lieber will step down from the council if elected to the board, with numerous people inquiring whether she plans to quit her term early. Lieber said she fully intends to stay on the council while simultaneously serving on the Board of Equalization, and that she believes it's both feasible and does not represent a conflict of overlapping jurisdictions. It's unlikely Mountain View will take up business related to the ocean marine tax, she said.
And as for whether the two offices will be too much for one person to handle, Lieber said she's ready.
"I am a real policy wonk and I really enjoy it, so no, it won't crush me," she said.