Californians have been breathing a bit easier in recent months as the state government's finances have turned — slowly, like an ocean freighter — from disaster to solvency. But the work is hardly done, and diligence is called for to ensure the budget doesn't drift off course.
The budget, of course, is a political document hashed out between the governor and the Legislature. But the state controller plays a significant role as a watchdog, the chief administrator of a large squad of people who check the books and make sure the bills are paid while helping taxpayers obtain as clear a picture as possible of the government's financial health.
It is because of her professional experience and skill-set that The Times endorses Republican Ashley Swearengin, the mayor of Fresno, for state controller.
Swearengin's opponent — and fellow survivor of the June primary — is Democrat Betty Yee, a member of the Board of Equalization from the Bay Area and former chief deputy director for budget in the state Department of Finance. Those jobs have given Yee an up-close view of the state budget and taxation process, and she recognizes the need for tax reform and the importance of addressing unfunded pension obligations. But while Yee is a credible candidate for the job of controller, she's simply not as well prepared for the office as Swearengin.
A former executive for Fresno-area economic development programs, Swearengin became mayor in 2009, as the state was facing financial crisis. She steered the city through its own budgetary shoals (though it's not in the clear yet) and was instrumental in keeping Fresno from joining Stockton and San Bernardino in filing for bankruptcy protection. Swearengin oversaw a sharp reduction in government payroll, necessitated by collapsed revenues, and — perhaps more significantly — she persuaded unionized city employees to shoulder a higher pension burden, aimed at addressing the problem of unfunded obligations. Swearengin also understands the need for a diverse economy, not only in Fresno but statewide. And as mayor, she has experience running a government, something that Yee lacks.
Notably, Swearengin has not been infected by the far-right fever that has gripped much of the Republican Party in California and, indeed, across the nation. So far, she has shown herself to be pragmatic, non-doctrinaire and able to separate her campaign from the divisive social issues that have marginalized many of her fellow Republicans.
In a state dominated by Democrats, Swearengin faces a difficult election. But of the two candidates, we believe she is the better choice for controller, and for the future of the state.