by Tax Notes State editor Doug Sheppard
The hiring of Sharonne Bonardi as executive director of the Federation of Tax Administrators in January 2022 reflected a pattern from throughout her career: She was the first person of color and second woman to earn the role as the head of the nation’s only association supporting the country’s state tax agencies.
Bonardi’s first year with the FTA also saw her push an ambitious strategic plan, not unlike the accomplishments in her six years as Maryland deputy comptroller, which are among the reasons Tax Notes State recognizes her as its person of the year.
Working with the FTA is actually nothing new to Bonardi, who served as secretary, first vice president, second vice president, and finally president of its board of trustees. She frequently spoke at FTA conferences during her 25 years with the Maryland Office of the Comptroller.
“My first involvement with FTA was when I was director of the compliance division and was presented the opportunity to present at numerous conferences,” Bonardi said. “Actually, before becoming the director, as an attorney hearing officer within the compliance division, I began presenting at FTA conferences. I became a board member of FTA once I was appointed deputy comptroller in 2015.”
Similarly, Bonardi rose through the ranks during her years with the comptroller’s office, serving as deputy director of its compliance division, assistant director, manager of the hearings and appeals section, and attorney hearings officer before becoming director.
She was the first person of color and second woman in all those positions, and she even had a stint as an administrative law judge with the Office of Administrative Hearings from 1999 to 2000.
“Sharonne was the heart and soul of the comptroller’s office, possessing the rare combination of being exceptional at her job and being universally beloved by her colleagues,” Maryland Comptroller Peter Franchot (D) said. “One of the best things I can say about Sharonne is that she cares deeply. You can see it in the way she communicates and the way she approaches her work with great detail and great compassion.”
It was all part of the learning process. But before Bonardi could rise to the top, she had to pay her dues.
Entering the SALT Arena
Tax was not on Bonardi’s mind as she earned a bachelor of arts and cum laude distinction from Trinity University in 1989, nor when she went on to earn a juris doctorate from the University of Maryland School of Law in 1992 and her master’s from The Johns Hopkins University’s Carey School of Business in 2000.
“I was not seeking to be a tax attorney,” Bonardi recalled. “I was looking to work in employment and labor law, but the job market when I graduated from law school was really poor. I was fortunate to be hired with the Maryland Department of Economic and Employment Development — and it had both unemployment insurance taxes, as well as employment-related issues. And so, I started my career there before transferring to the comptroller’s office in May 1997.”
It was during the interview process for that job as a hearing officer with the comptroller’s office that Bonardi first encountered one of her mentors, Linda Tanton, the state’s first female deputy comptroller and now of counsel at the FTA.
“Her resume was impressive and she herself was impressive during the interview,” Tanton said. “It became clear early in her tenure that she was not only highly intelligent, but also willing to work harder than others. As a result, she quickly moved up in the organization.”
Indeed, Bonardi found her niche in the comptroller’s office. She became involved not only with the FTA, but with the Maryland State Bar Association, the Maryland Association of CPAs, and the Northeastern States Tax Officials Association — serving as president of the latter in 2018-2019.
As deputy comptroller, she was instrumental in the passage of legislation on private letter rulings, as well as procuring funding for low-income tax credits for state tax controversies at both the University of Baltimore and University of Maryland law schools, and a volunteer lawyer service.
However, the one measure Bonardi will perhaps be best remembered for is the Maryland Taxpayer Protection Act (S.B. 304), enacted in 2017. After experiencing an increase in fraud and data breaches, the state wanted to better protect its tax system and address related issues.
Bonardi oversaw meetings with stakeholders, including practitioners, taxpayer advocacy groups, the state and local tax community at large and, of course, the lawmakers who would ultimately approve it.
“We had various stakeholder meetings just to see what the practitioners’ interests and concerns were, as well as what the taxpayer advocacy groups were seeking from the Taxpayer Protection Act,” Bonardi said. “And we were able to collaborate on a piece of legislation that was supported by all of the stakeholders.”
From there, the proposal was taken to the legislature where, as Bonardi recalled, the purpose “was more of making them aware of the issues, so the first year we had to spend our time educating the legislators about the fraud and how it was affecting their constituents. And we were also able to get support from law enforcement in the state of Maryland, as well as the attorney general’s office.”
The efforts culminated with Gov. Larry Hogan (R) signing the measure on May 4, 2017. “It was multifold, but it was to help prevent tax fraud and protect taxpayers from fraudulent tax preparers,” Bonardi said. “And it gave the agency funding to hire an assistant attorney general to prosecute those violators of criminal tax offenses.”
If nothing else, the successful legislation reflected Bonardi’s strong ambitions, which have already manifested in her new role in the form of the FTA’s first strategic plan in nearly a decade. The plan details new goals for the organization in the areas of accountability, sustainability, and transparency; collaboration; communication; education and training; technology and resources; and uniformity and standards.
“In the strategic plan, some of the major priorities are to be certain that we have outreach and collaboration with like associations, as well as we are planning a rebranding of our website, and looking for ways to provide training and educational opportunities for our membership — both online and in-person — to meet their needs,” Bonardi said.
The Baltimore County, Maryland, native’s ambitions extend outside work as well, where she’s involved with organizations such as The Links Inc., Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority Inc., and serves on the board of directors for both the Baltimore Center Stage and SECU MD, Maryland’s largest state-chartered credit union.
If anyone can sing “I’m on My Way” with as much conviction as Baltimore soul legend Winfield Parker, it’s Bonardi.
Sometimes Bonardi’s public and private aspirations have even intersected, such as when she threw out the first pitch at Camden Yards in a Major League Baseball game between the Baltimore Orioles and Boston Red Sox on September 20, 2016.
Bonardi was being honored as the first person of color to become deputy comptroller and used the contest (a 5-2 Orioles loss) as an opportunity to raise funding for charity.
“That was nerve-wracking, but very cool,” Bonardi said. “We raised money for the Maryland Charity Campaign— so that was a lot of fun. People bought tickets and they made it a philanthropic opportunity.”
Bonardi had earned the respect of the Orioles and, more importantly, her colleagues.
“She soaked up information and wanted to learn everything,” Tanton said of Bonardi’s ascent. “When she brought a problem to her superior’s attention, she also brought a well-thought-out solution — a unique ability. She quickly developed her leadership skills and was respected by both her peers and subordinates. Employees loved her. She is now bringing all those skills and her boundless energy to FTA.
“In a humorous twist,” Tanton added, “she is now my boss. But I am happy to say she is also my friend.”
“She was a rising star in the Maryland comptroller’s office by the time I left the agency, and she became its operating head while I was with the District of Columbia,” said former Deputy Comptroller Stephen Cordi. “She brings deep practical knowledge of tax administration to the FTA, which will benefit its membership for years to come.”
Appearing before 20,387 fans (the official attendance for the Orioles-Red Sox game) was one thing. However, Bonardi — and all tax administrators — would face a far more formidable opponent three and a half years later when COVID-19 hit. Bonardi called the pandemic “the most challenging thing” of her tenure as deputy comptroller, and it is here that we pick up the interview.
Doug Sheppard: You were a manager, so you probably had to coordinate with many employees about how they were going to carry out their duties during the pandemic.
Sharonne Bonardi: I was the chief operating officer, so yes, I was responsible for the entire agency going through the COVID-19 pandemic, so I had to coordinate with our IT to make certain that it had the appropriate hardware and software available to continue operating.
I had to coordinate with our human resources department to make certain that our employees were as healthy and safe as possible, because we had to have some employees on-site to process mail and paper tax returns.
In the comptroller’s office, we’re also responsible for central payroll for the state of Maryland. I had to make certain the state employees continued to be paid throughout the pandemic. We were responsible for general accounting for the entire state of Maryland and had to make certain that all vendors who operated with the state and were supporting the state during the pandemic received their funds. We had to make certain that there was an emergency procurement process to help hospitals and other essential agencies during the pandemic. And then, of course, the regular tax administration that’s required.
Sheppard: And along the way, I would imagine there were some challenges you didn’t expect.
Bonardi: Well, one challenge — and we always put people first — is that family members of employees were being lost. So, we had to make certain that we had proper training, protective gear, and health screening for our staff and for our leadership who were shepherding everyone through the pandemic. We also had to make certain that our employees who wanted vaccines had access to them.
I used it as an opportunity to reimagine our workplace, and so we were able to implement hybrid work very quickly. We had to prepare the telephony so that our call centers could be remote and our hearings could be remote, and once we made the investment, we remained committed to the employees being able to continue that hybrid work environment.
Sheppard: And you probably had to help prepare your successor for the job.
Bonardi: Yes, as the deputy comptroller, before the pandemic, I fortunately started a transformational leadership program for our executives, and we already had succession planning for our key positions.
Sheppard: What are some of the things you’ve been working on since joining the FTA in January?
Bonardi: We were able to publish our first strategic plan in about a decade. I’m very proud of that, and that’s located on our website. It’s a five-year strategic plan that we worked on with our staff and our board of trustees in publishing, and it lays out the framework for the future of the FTA.
Since joining the FTA, I have been instrumental in the planning and hosting of our numerous conferences in 2022, including our annual meeting.
Sheppard: This year’s annual meeting was the first one that had been in person in a while, correct?
Bonardi: Yes, we had our first in-person annual meeting since 2019.
Sheppard: Were there any challenges in holding that meeting?
Bonardi: I think it was the uncertainty of whether states would be able to travel, and if there has been any reemergence of different strands of the coronavirus — that unpredictability. But fortunately, we were able to host it in-person and had very high attendance.
Sheppard: What kinds of things do you foresee talking about in the FTA’s podcast and on the online presentations?
Bonardi: We want to invite leaders within the tax community to have conversations with our membership. And it would be various topics ranging from technology to compliance, as well as trendy things such as cryptocurrency, digital assets, and taxpayer experience.
Sheppard: What do you see as some of the challenges for tax administration as a whole — not just with the FTA, but in all 50 states going forward in the coming years?
Bonardi: I see it around recruitment and retention, as we saw through the pandemic and the great resignation — that tax agencies are not immune to the challenges that other sectors of government, as well as private industry, currently face. And so, we have to compete not just with other state agencies and departments of revenue, but we’re competing with private industry in being able to recruit.
Sheppard: It’s always been a challenge for state departments of revenue to retain employees because they can’t pay as much for the services of experts, so they’re always competing with industry over that. That must be an ongoing issue as well.
Bonardi: Yes. And now with remote work and people being able to live in different cities, it just makes it even more challenging.
Sheppard: What were some of the unexpected challenges of your new role?
Bonardi: What’s challenging is that I want to implement everything immediately. That’s just the type of person that I am: I have very high standards and want to make certain that I meet all the members’ needs as quickly as possible.
And I need to have more patience with that. So, I’m certain that we’re going to implement our five-year plan in a shorter period of time, because that’s just the type of person I am — and so is the team. The team is just really excited about what lies ahead in the future of tax administration, and we’re all ready to deliver it now. And we have to just make certain that we pace ourselves.
Sheppard: Are there any parts of the plan that have already been implemented or that are close to final implementation?
Bonardi: I would say that many of them are ahead of schedule. For example, we already have a beta site for the website, and we look forward to just completing the look of that so we can launch; I know we will launch that ahead of schedule. We have made numerous connections with various associations on the collaboration front. I’m very excited about the progress that we have made with the outreach.
Sheppard: When you say associations, are you referring to other tax organizations?
Bonardi: I can tell you which ones we have engaged with more: the Multistate Tax Commission, the Streamlined Sales Tax Governing Board, the Council On State Taxation, AICPA, and the American Bar Association.
We also meet regularly with the National Association of State Treasurers and the National Association of State Budget Officers. We have a quarterly meeting with the IRS’s Wage and Investment Division, and we engage monthly with different groups within the IRS, including various Security Summit teams, ETAAC [Electronic Tax Administration Advisory Committee], and the ID Theft Tax Refund Fraud ISAC [Information Sharing and Analysis Center]. And we have deepened our relationship with CERCA [the Council for Electronic Revenue Communication Advancement].
We have been more actively engaged with various associations within the tax community.
Sheppard: And I take it that’s basically to not only give them feedback, but to get input on how to improve tax administration and issues like that?
Bonardi: Yes, to get what their priorities are, so that we can assess them with our priorities or the priorities of our members — to see where we align and what areas that we can work together and collaborate on.
Sheppard: We talked about the challenges of employee retention. Are there any other challenges of state tax administration that you see going forward — maybe in terms of technology or compliance?
Bonardi: Fortunately, the state agencies have been modernizing for over a decade, and I think that that’s where we actually can demonstrate our innovation and leadership and being able to assist the IRS with its upcoming modernization effort. I think we’ll need to make certain that there’s still always funding to support the continuum of modernization.
Sheppard: So it would be the states almost serving as a role model for the federal government.
Bonardi: I would say that we’re definitely available to support them with those efforts, because we have been modernizing for the past decade.
Sheppard: One thing that was done during Harley Duncan’s tenure as FTA executive director was the implementation of refund offsetting between states and the federal government. Are there any other collaborative efforts you’re looking at along those lines between states and the IRS?
Bonardi: Harley Duncan was an exceptional leader, and Gale Garriott continued that legacy. I would say that since that time, we have worked very closely with the IRS in standing up programs such as the Information Sharing and Analysis Center, the ISAC, which is dedicated to the prevention of ID theft and tax refund fraud.
And I was a member of that senior executive board before joining FTA as executive director, and still work closely with the program. The FTA is an endorsing organization of the ISAC and works with other endorsing organizations, the IRS, and the software industry on this important initiative.
Sheppard: Have there been any challenges of being a woman or the first person of color in any of these positions?
Bonardi: Yes, from very early on in my career in tax administration, that was very challenging. I was the youngest, the first person of color, and usually the second female. Those responsibilities were challenging at times, so I just made certain that my work spoke for itself — and fortunately, it was recognized, and I was given promotional opportunities and then appointed to the deputy comptroller position.
I always hoped my unique experience would inspire other women and people of color to pursue a career in tax administration. Because of the challenges I faced, I dedicate time to mentoring other women and promoting organizations that support people of color and women in leadership.
Sheppard: What kind of advice do you give to women getting into the field? Or even people of color who are just getting into it?
Bonardi: Well, I’ll say fortunately now there are many people to help — like me — who have broken those ceilings and barriers. And now, I think tax administration is one of the best opportunities for women and for people of color, because government agencies are more diverse — looking like the communities they serve.
It is also one of the most fulfilling opportunities because you can support the entire state, city, or whatever governmental unit you’re leading. And so, you get to bring your experience to that agency— and that is very much needed and important now more than ever in tax administration, especially as we look at improving the taxpayer experience.
Sheppard: I’ve been in the SALT world for 25 years, and it seems like tax is one of the areas where people are a little more open-minded. I know there were challenges for women before the ’90s, but things seem to have evolved. Has that been your experience as well?
Bonardi: I agree. Early on, it was more challenging, but in more recent decades, it’s definitely more collaborative — as you have more female tax administrators and you have more female attorneys and accountants as well.