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The wages of political cascading

July 16, 2009 |  7:35 pm

Jerome HortonHere's something that leftish Democrats talked about a lot -- but only quietly, over drinks in back rooms -- when they were trying to decide whether to back Judy Chu or Gil Cedillo to replace Hilda Solis in Congress when President Obama picked Solis for labor secretary.

If we go with Gil, they said, we can hand-pick some reliable Democrat to replace him in the state Senate. But Gil's gone sort of moderate. So maybe we should go with more reliably leftish Judy. Oh, but wait, that will mean Schwarzenegger would appoint her replacement on the state Board of Equalization, and he'd choose someone who's gone sort of moderate.

Well, they went with Chu in the special primary, and she won. Today Arnold Schwarzenegger appointed moderate Democrat Jerome Horton to the Board of Equalization, and if he's confirmed, it's a major defeat for leftish Democrats. Even though Horton's a Democrat. Which raises some questions:

Q: What the heck is the state Board of Equalization?

A: It's the nation's only elected tax body. It's in charge of collecting sales and property taxes, and is not to be confused with the Franchise Tax Board, which collects income taxes. We need a separate, elected BOE because -- um, because -- well, because California needs more elected officials. Also, without a BOE, termed-out legislators who aren't yet ready to run for statewide office but who can't get appointed to the Waste Management Board would have no power base and limited fund-raising opportunities. The BOE keeps them in the game.

Q: Horton's a Democrat. And there's nothing wrong with being a moderate. So what's the big deal?

A: In tax policy circles, "moderate" is code for business-friendly, which changes the balance on the five-member board. The state is divided into four districts: 1st (representing the entire California coast, from Oregon to Santa Barbara; automatically a Democratic seat); 2nd (cow counties, tax revolt counties, the desert portion of L.A. county: Republican seat); 3rd (San Diego, Orange, Inland Empire; in other words, Republican seat); and 4th (the non-desert portions of L.A. County. Democrat). The tie is broken by the state controller, who is Democrat John Chiang. But Horton would be expected to mix things up by voting, sometimes, with the Republicans. And those tax policy votes will make a far bigger difference to California, in the short run at least, than anything Chu could possibly do in Congress.

Q: Wait, didn't Chu beat Horton in the last BOE Democratic primary?

A: Indeed she did: Chu got 49.7% of the vote in the 4-person field; Horton got 31.5%. So should we say that Schwarzenegger is flouting the choice of voters, who had a chance to pick Horton and overwhelmingly said no? Or should we say that Schwarzenegger is doing the voters' will by giving them their back-up choice?  

Q: Is Horton even qualified for this job?

A: No, unless you count his two-decade career at the BOE, his six years as a state assemblyman, and his four years on the Inglewood City Council. Some Democrats who oppose Horton likely do so because of his pro-business approach on taxes and his penchant for avoiding Assembly votes to keep lobbyists on both sides courting him until the last possible moment.

Q: What about Chu's husband, Mike Eng? Doesn't the state Constitution require Eng to always succeed Chu in any elected position?

A: No, although it's understandable why someone might think that. Eng succeeded Chu on the Monterey Park City Council, as Monterey Park mayor, and as member of the Assembly from the 49th District.

Q: Is Horton going to be confirmed by the Legislature?

A: Not without a lot of angst and political saber-rattling. If he's not confirmed, and no follow-up appointment is confirmed, a former Chu staffer will fill in until the BOE election next year. Bet you can hardly wait.

Q: If the BOE board is supposed to represent the entire state, how come four of five members come from the L.A. area?

A: District line-drawing at its finest.

Photo: Robert Durell / LAT

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