Californians have been lucky over the past two decades that a number of tough-minded, dedicated and creative people have served as state treasurer, from Phil Angelides to Bill Lockyer to, most recently, John Chiang (who opted to run for governor this year instead of seeking reelection). They worked with Govs. Gray Davis, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jerry Brown to help guide the state through the energy crisis at the beginning of the millennium, a serious budget shortfall in 2002 and, of course, the devastating 2008-2009 recession. This is a big and important job, and we believe Democrat Fiona Ma is best suited to take it on.
Ma currently sits on the Board of Equalization. She served as member of the state Assembly from 2006-2012, where she was speaker pro tempore under Speaker John Perez, and, before that, was on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. Her background is in accounting — she’s a CPA who worked for Ernst & Young before starting her own accounting practice in San Francisco. As a member of the Board of Equalization, she (along with Controller Betty Yee) was instrumental in sparking an investigation into a scandal involving nepotism and improper use of civil servants for political purposes by her fellow board members. The scrutiny culminated in a 2017 law that stripped the Board of Equalization of nearly all of its duties and staff, leaving it with only the core duties required under the state Constitution. Ma also has joined the call for a voter initiative to disband the outdated board entirely, a perfectly fine idea.
Ma is clear-eyed about the state’s financial condition and its investment needs.
So what does the treasurer do? The job is essentially to serve as the manager of the state’s financial assets. A common comparison is that the state treasurer watches after the government’s savings account while the state controller is in charge of its checkbook. Among other things, the treasurer manages the state’s Pooled Money Investment Account which invests state, local and agency money to stabilize cash flow, and sits on a wide range of boards and commissions, including those overseeing the state’s two largest public pensions funds.
Ma’s opponent, Greg Conlon, is a retired CPA who spent most of his career at the Arthur Anderson accounting firm, which no longer exists. He sat on the Public Utilities Commission, including a stint as chairman, during Gov. Pete Wilson’s administration, a time when the PUC was less consumer friendly than it ought to have been. This is Conlon’s third try for the treasurer’s job, and he has never exceeded 40% of the vote in those attempts. He also ran in the 2016 primary to replace Barbara Boxer in the U.S. Senate but received only 3% of the vote. California voters have had plenty of chances to elect him and have persistently opted not to.
Ma wants to offer closer guidance to local governments on their investments. She also suggests scheduling outreach workshops around the state to help local governments and members of the public understand some of the state’s less-known financial programs, including the ScholarShare 529 college savings plan, and state grants and tax credits. She intends to work closely with the Legislature to ensure that its members know the state’s financial condition as they consider legislation (Chiang has had a rocky relationship with the Legislature since he withheld legislator’s pay during a budget dispute), and will follow Chiang’s relatively conservative investing approach. She supports greater transparency about the state’s finances, including a website tracking the state’s investment health.
As part of the Democratic Party establishment, Ma will need to maintain independence and distance to properly look out for the state’s fiscal stability. We’re persuaded that she’ll be able to do that even as she works closely with Yee — presuming Yee wins reelection — to oversee public money. She has floated the intriguing idea of releasing her own recommendations for the annual budget to offer guidance to both the executive and legislative branches as they negotiate spending plans. She also intends to press the state and local governments to increase payments to the pension funds to try to reduce unfunded liabilities. Ma is clear-eyed about the state’s financial condition and its investment needs, and we’re confident that she would continue the policies that have done well for California taxpayers.