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State tax collectors target Santa Barbara's cascarones vendors

Tyler Pratt/KCBX News
Dolores Moreno has been selling her cascarones during Santa Barbara's Fiesta for 20 years. But if state tax officials require street vendors to get a permit and pay taxes on their occasional sales, she may quit.

Cascarones — or confetti eggs — are a long-standing Mexican tradition. Chicken eggs are hollowed out, cleaned and decorated, then filled with toys or confetti. And often, the resulting party favor is then cracked over people's heads as a gag. The colorful creations are frequently seen around Easter, as well as other holidays and festivals, like Santa Barbara’s Fiesta, a celebration of the city’s culture and heritage. But this year, state officials descended on the event, threatening to issue citations to cascarones vendors, unless they started paying state taxes on their sales.

During this year’s 94th annual Old Spanish Days — Fiesta— vendors lined downtown’s State Street selling their cascarones. Vendors like Dolores Moreno, who’s been selling her eggs at Fiesta for 20 years.

“We save [up the eggs] for the whole year and I clean them and I paint them,” Moreno said. “It’s a lot of work. The whole family saves them for me. My neighbors and everybody.”

Moreno said she spends a little time each day with her granddaughters decorating the eggs by hand. Some are simple with little colorful stripes; some have silly faces with little hats. It takes her months to stockpile an inventory for a few days' worth of selling. 

But this year, state tax officials told Moreno and other Santa Barbara cascadores vendors they would be receiving citations if they didn’t obtain permits and collect sales tax.

“They said we have to pay taxes for that, but we make only like $200 dollars for four days, “Moreno said. “ I think it’s no good.”

Anthony Wagner, with the Santa Barbara Police Department, explained what happened:

“Seven bilingual enforcement agents and a supervisor from the California Department of Tax and Fee Administration… came upon possibly several hundred egg vendors and [officials] attempted to make contact with them and tell them they were running afoul of the law. And that [officials] would be back the next day to potentially write misdemeanor violations, seize product, and provide fines.”

Wagner said many of the egg vendors are immigrants, some marginalized and others undocumented, so the Santa Barbara police department pushed back on California tax officials.

"Any heavy-handed enforcement action could alarm and upset a preexisting, stable positive relationship with the most vulnerable members of the fabric of our community,” Wagner said.

Wagner said the Santa Barbara police department was able to negotiate with the state’s tax collecting agency to prevent citations from being issued, this year.

“Instead, the agents would pivot to an education campaign,” Wagner said. “To inform future egg vendors that California State Department of Tax and Fee Administrationwould be conducting enforcement actions next year during Fiesta.”

The California Department of Tax and Fee Administration declined to be interviewed for this story, but did issue the following statement:

“Our Statewide Compliance and Outreach Program teams travel the state to educate local businesses and sellers on tax laws, which can be confusing to many people. It was not our intention to alarm anyone in Santa Barbara or to single out any community, and we apologize if the department's actions caused any misunderstanding or apprehension. We are reviewing our outreach efforts to assess how we interact with microbusinesses and individuals who may be selling goods only occasionally. Our presence at this event was intended to be an educational outreach effort, and we appreciated meeting with the local community. Our outreach for this event has concluded.”

So what will vendors like Moreno do, if they are required to get a permit next year?

“I don’t know,” Moreno said. "Maybe I think about it. Maybe I quit.”

Avalon Nichols and her mom walked up to by eggs from Moreno and chimed in.

"That would be really sad," Nichols said." Because it’s like really fun. It’s such a tradition. "

Currently moving through the California legislature is a bill called the Safe Sidewalk Vending Act. It’s aimed at ending penalties and restrictions on sidewalk vendors across the state.

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