News

January 4, 2010

Keeping California Running

Crystal Taylor ’03 plays key role in determining country’s largest state budget

By Dan Edelen

Though she’s never played an action hero in film — unlike the governor she answers to — Crystal Taylor ’03 faces her own heroic task: finding the nearly $120 billion needed to keep the state of California running.

“It’s a lot of pressure,” she says with a chuckle, “but I thrive under pressure.”

As budget officer in the executive branch of the state’s Franchise Tax Board, Taylor leads a team of 13 as they coordinate the budget for the department that oversees millions of tax forms and monies that pour in from individuals and businesses. Sifting through this mountain of information to make the fiscal recommendations to the legislature behind the country’s largest state budget dominates Taylor’s day from the moment she wakes. “I’m checking email on my Blackberry while I’m brushing my teeth,” she says.

Taylor’s never been one to flinch when confronted with a challenge. She majored in mathematics at Lafayette, a discipline largely devoid of African-American women. After hearing a speaker joke about the arduous graduate economics track at Princeton University, Taylor took that challenge to another level by earning simultaneous masters’ degrees (economics & public policy and urban & regional planning, both 2006).

“I want to be that person everyone teases because I’m doing the hardest work,” she says. That drive landed her in California’s Legislative Analyst’s Office as a fiscal policy analyst. “I asked the question, Where’s the hardest place where I can make a difference? I’m going there.”

Only two months into that job, Taylor testified before the state legislature in a televised hearing, discussing her department’s program ideas, including how to keep tensions low among callers to the state’s tax call center. When an assemblyman challenged her findings, Taylor backed her testimony with her call-monitoring fieldwork. “Speaking truth to power” in that hearing changed Taylor: “I had to find conviction for every word I said.”

Today, Taylor’s role makes a difference not only to the state’s operation, but also to the lives of its employees. Confronted with a mandate to lay off state workers, Taylor and her group negotiated a deal with the governor’s fiscal officers that substituted budget allocations for unfilled positions with those of workers facing layoffs, saving 300 jobs.

“Even if they don’t know me,” she says, “I know the decisions I make impact people.”

Taylor cites more than 20 professors at Lafayette who altered the course of her own life and gave her the tools to meet California’s fiscal challenges. Discussing economics over dinner at the home of Professors Gladstone Hutchinson and Ute Schumacher built a foundation for Taylor to ask the kind of probing questions her job demands.

“That someone is willing to take the time to get to know you and their belief that you are special and have promise, that was inspiring to me, even when I wasn’t so sure that I did,” she says. “To have someone say you can do it, that I believe in you, and here are two or three steps you can take, a book you can read to explain the process, or even recommending a professor to chat with about your ideas — that was so common at Lafayette that I can’t imagine being who I am today without it.”

Helping to manage the behemoth that is California’s tax system and her department’s $600 million budget at a time of uncertainty calls on all of Taylor’s multiple skills. Yet one unexplored skill excites her most of all. This April will bring more than just a deluge of tax forms to Taylor’s Sacramento office, for she and husband Edward Torres are expecting their own little pink-bowed tax deduction.

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