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Toward Tax Solutions

The front page of this morning’s Sacramento Bee, above the fold is the headline “California Republicans put taxes on table for state budget deal.”

And in other tax news “Capitol Alert” has the following interesting, yet troubling story about today’s meeting of the Commission on the 21st Century Economy:

Only 24 hours … and a $100 billion tax system to overhaul.

It sounds like the mandate for some kind of wonkishly perverse reality show. But it’s not. It’s the task of California’s brand-new tax commission, which meets today for the first time in San Diego.

The 12-member panel — officially tagged the Commission on the 21st Century Economy — is supposed to propose an overhaul of the state’s outdated tax codes.

But they better get to work fast, as the commission is scheduled to meet a mere three times (with a fourth meeting scheduled “if needed”) before issuing its report on April 15.

If each meeting lasts a full eight hours, that’s only 24 hours to settle on a fix (and without the help of Jack Bauer).

Because of the state’s open-meeting laws, members of the commission won’t be allowed to gather outside the scheduled gatherings to talk tax policy, either. The limited time allotted has drawn skepticism from both ends of the ideological spectrum.

“We’re not going to pre-judge them before their first meeting, but it definitely is a daunting task,” said David Kline, a spokesman for the California Taxpayers Association, a business-backed taxpayer group.

“It certainly is rushed. I think you would want more time,” said Jean Ross, director of the California Budget Project, a left-leaning advocacy group. “These are incredibility complex issues that touch of every Californian in terms of both the taxes they pay and the public services supported by those taxes that it deserves more attention.”

Ross noted that not all of the commissioners even have a background in tax policy.

The commission, chaired by Gerald Parsky, was supposed to first meet in November, but delays in naming the panel members means today’s hearing will be its first. The meeting will primarily be an informational one, with folks like Mac Taylor, the nonpartisan legislative analyst, making presentations.

Even when the commission was scheduled to begin its work two months ago, Assembly Speaker Karen Bass, who advocated for its formation, admitted the tax overhaul was a “tall order.”

“But we need maximum performance in a minimum period of time,” the Los Angeles Democrat said.

The commission’s charge is not to raise or lower taxes, but rather to “modernize” how the state collects them, hopefully limiting the volatility that has led to large swings in revenue.

“We are basically just looking for one thing and that is to create stability,” Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said when he formed the commission last fall, “with the rainy day fund that we have just established, with our budget reform and with living within our means and not spending more money than we have.”

Simple as that.

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