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TAX COMMISSION COMES UNDER FIRE

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Utah's four state tax commissioners provide needed cover from ham-handed politicians trying to influence tax auditing and collecting, but they also meddle too much in the internal workings of the commission, causing ineffective management, a former executive director of the commission claimed Friday.

Clyde Nichols resigned as executive director of the Utah State Tax Commission last December, taking a newly created job as director of research for the body. But in late February, said Nichols, "I was fired. Now I'm looking for work."Nichols testified before the state Constitutional Revision Commission Friday, a group of state legislators and citizens who are now considering constitutional changes to how the Tax Commission operates.

In the early 1930s, in an effort to keep politics out of tax collection and administration, Utahns changed the state Constitution, creating the current Tax Commission. Four commissioners run the commission. They're appointed by the governor to a four-year term, confirmed by the Utah Senate.

In the early 1980s former Gov. Scott Matheson got lawmakers to agree to an overhaul of the commission, current commissioners were fired and new ones hired. The idea was that a new executive director would run the commission and commissioners would act like a board of directors - spending most of their time hearing tax appeals from disgruntled taxpayers and overseeing broad tax policy.

Nichols said his nine years as executive director - the first one hired under the new system - were times of valuable change but also times of "being yanked back" by some commissioners who refused to give up administrative authority. Finally, faced with two new Republican commissioners - former Lt. Gov. and Auditor Val Oveson and former Salt Lake City Council member Alice Shearer - Nichols said he decided to step down as executive director. "Things then started happening that I just couldn't abide, and they finally fired me," he told the Deseret News following his testimony before the constitutional commission. He declined to elaborate. Tax Commission sources say Nichols had a falling out with Oveson, the new commission chairman, over a number of issues.

"Let's just leave it at this, I couldn't work for hypocrites anymore," Nichols said.

Oveson is out of town and couldn't be reached for comment. Shearer said she really doesn't know what Nichols is talking about since she came on to the commission after he had resigned as executive director. "I don't personally (meddle in administrative affairs of the commission)," said Shearer. "I know I'm not the boss or supervisor of anyone. It is an inappropriate role" for a commissioner to take, she said.

"They (the commissioners) may say they don't meddle in administrative matters. But (internal) department directors are getting telephone calls three, four times a day from commissioners telling them what to do," Nichols said.

While criticizing the administrative prowess of commissioners past and present, Nichols said he'd rather have them than not. Many was the time, he said, that he got a call from an executive in another state department or from a Utah legislator who would demand that an audit be stopped or some rule rewritten. "I've had legislators call up and demand that we shut some business down because it was competing `unfairly' against (the lawmaker's) constituent's business," said Nichols, who just ignored those calls. But without some kind of real political insulation, serious political favoritism could occur, Nichols warned.

One real problem now with the commission's operations, said Nichols, is the perceived - and he stressed perceived - belief among taxpayers that they can't get "a fair deal" from the commission in their appeals. That's because the commissioners help draft tax rules and regulations, sign the advisory opinions on those rules and then hear taxpayers' appeals that claim the rules and/or opinions are wrong or unfair.

For years lawmakers and tax officials have argued over the inherent conflict imposed by the Utah Constitution - that the Tax Commission administer tax laws and hear tax appeals. For five years the Constitutional Revision Commission has debated the problem off and on. Now the constitutional group has some language to discuss, but a number of interested citizens urge it to wait. A new law was passed by the 1994 Legislature - which takes effect July 1 - that allows taxpayers unhappy with Tax Commission appeal decisions to take the matter directly to district court for a trial.

Where disgruntled taxpayers before could only appeal to the Utah Supreme Court - who couldn't hear new testimony, just review the Tax Commission's official appeal record - now taxpayers can go to court and get a complete trial - call witnesses, subpoena records, etc. "Let's give the new law a chance to work" and see if it solves the problem, instead of immediately changing the Constitution, said Rep. John Valentine, R-Orem, who is a tax attorney.