For once in his life Bill Connell, proprietor of Carpinteria’s landmark mobile Surf Dog shack, is nearly speechless. Nearly. “I’m in semi-shock,” exclaimed the hot dog vendor. “I’ve almost pulled it off.”
For the past decade, Connell has been relentlessly butting heads with the State of California’s most intractable bureaucracy-the State Board of Equalization-over the finest of print in the most arcane of state laws, which Connell charges has unfairly cost him about $7,000 a year. Connell claims that under a state law passed by the Legislature in 1893, honorably discharged military veterans-such as himself-who peddle, hawk, or vend goods and food should be exempt from paying sales taxes. The Board of Equalization and the State Controller have vigorously disputed Connell’s interpretation, and the “battlefield” over which they’ve fought is the proper interpretation of a single comma. Rather than resolve past differences over this high-stakes grammatical dispute, Connell and his allies at the state’s Division of Veterans Affairs have introduced legislation that would bestow a narrowly crafted “new” exemption upon veterans who vend. The measure has already sailed through all the necessary committees in the State Senate; this Monday, it was unanimously approved by the Assembly’s tax and revenue committee. The measure-SB 809 -now goes to the Assembly Appropriations Committee. If approved, it next goes to Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger for signing.
Making Connell’s legislative victory all the more improbable is the state’s desperate fiscal situation. At a time when the state faces a $26-billion budget shortfall, it’s hard to imagine the Legislature approving a brand new loophole, particularly for so modest a special interest as Connell. Fortunately for Connell, this loophole will, at most, deprive the state of $25,000 a year in potential sales tax revenues. “But in the long run, the state will save $12 million because of the number of people who don’t go on welfare because of this, who don’t become unemployed, who don’t go on relief,” Connell said. He claims there are 5,600 other veteran vendors statewide who could benefit if this bill becomes law.
In his crusade, Connell has emerged as Santa Barbara’s equivalent of the Jimmy Stewart character in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington-only in Connell’s case, it’s Sacramento. Burly, gregarious, and endowed with an exuberant sense of profanity, Connell served in the Army during the Vietnam War. Stationed in Europe, the only action he saw was in the boxing ring, where he donned silk shorts and traded jabs, hooks, and uppercuts for Uncle Sam. After the military, Connell briefly boxed professionally, worked with hazardous materials, and 17 years ago became an itinerant hot dog vendor, setting up his flag-festooned shack by the Carpinteria Bluffs.
In short order, Connell found himself at odds with the state tax man, and he refused to back down. Armed with jacket and tie, Connell has traveled to Sacramento numerous times-14 times in the past three years-to testify before various committees, knock on doors, and lobby legislators. He claims to be working in concert with at least 10 veterans’ organizations, but according to Donald Wilson, staff person with the Veterans Affairs Committee, Connell has been the engine driving this train. “He’s the guy they can’t kill,” said Wilson. “Other people have come and gone-they give up, they get bored-but not him. He never surrenders, never backs down, and just keeps coming.”
After all these years, will Connell get bored without a legislative bone to pick? Not likely. In order to approve Connell’s “loophole,” members of the Revenue and Taxation Committee inserted a loophole of their own. As a result, the sales tax exemption for which Connell has fought so hard will expire in two years. And then, said Wilson, it starts all over again.