The State of California is seeking an accountant and bookkeeper to oversee the payout of public funds for the next four years.
- Fiscal responsibility: Writes the checks for state government – about 49 million a year for employee pay, retiree payments, Medi-Cal, personal income tax refunds, and payments to vendors
- An eye for detail: Conducts independent audits of how state agencies spend their money
- Excellent coordination skills: Issues payments to local governments and schools, plus budgeting and accounting guidelines for all 58 counties and more than 4,900 special districts
- The ability to multitask: Serves on commissions including public land management and crime victim compensation; finance and oversight authorities such as the Franchise Tax Board; and on the boards of the nation’s two largest public pension funds
- Also safeguards unclaimed property: bank accounts, uncashed checks, insurance benefits, wages, stocks, bonds, and safe deposit box contents
About the hiring process:
Incumbent Betty Yee is termed out, which has made the open statewide seat one of the more competitive races this election.
While it’s always a challenge for any Republican to win statewide office, policy analyst Lanhee Chen – who has worked on several high-profile U.S. political campaigns, including Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential bid – finished first in the June primary with 37% of the vote. Chen hopes to sell voters on the idea that someone outside the majority party will be an effective check on the state’s finances.
He’s up against Malia Cohen, the Democratic Party’s favorite and chairperson of the California State Board of Equalization. Cohen bested a crowded Democratic field that included state Sen. Steve Glazer from Orinda; Ron Galperin, the city controller of Los Angeles; and Yvonne Yiu, a city councilmember from Monterey Park in Southern California. While she finished second with 23% in the primary, she now has the advantage of running in a heavily Democratic state in November.
The major applicants emphasize the position’s watchdog role, but also want to expand the job description. Chen says he would use the office’s bully pulpit to bring public attention to problems with state spending, while Cohen says she wants to advocate for equitable use of state money.
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Here’s where Lanhee Chen and Malia Cohen, applicants for controller, stand on the big questions about California’s budget, pensions and taxes.
While the state budget is awash in surplus cash, the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office and other watchdogs have repeatedly questioned whether all that money is being spent wisely or effectively.
“Where the challenges are is pretty manifest given the amount of money, for example, we spend on K through 12, on issues relating to health care, whether it's Medi-Cal or IHSS or behavioral health care and mental health care.”
The Employment Development Department, corrections agencies, the homeless initiatives. “I'd like to know if we're spending good money. Are we throwing good money after bad?”
“Let's be really precise about where the fraud is happening. In EDD, we know there was fraud and we know what the amount roughly is….Waste is a little tougher to quantify, because one person's waste is another person's treasure.”
Legislative hearings with all the stakeholders, audits. “And then I would come back and make public my findings and if there are recommendations, make the recommendations.”
Even though the economy is rebounding from COVID, California still has among the nation’s highest jobless rates and hasn’t recovered all the jobs lost. Experts say the pandemic widened the gap between California’s rich and poor in some ways, despite unprecedented direct relief.
“My concern with one-time type solutions is precisely that they are one-time type solutions, that if the conditions persist we will be talking about six months from now another one-time solution, which doesn't get at the fundamental question of where's the flow of funds in the taxes and fees we charge on a gallon of gas right now?”
“No, I don't have a position on either one of the policy options….Just find a way… to get those checks to Californians as quickly and as efficiently as possible, ensuring that there isn't any fraud, any loss or anyone receiving money when they don't qualify.”
“Okay, so do we have a tax system designed for the transition to a service-based economy? Probably not. And so we need to take a good, hard look at what that means for our state taxation system.”
“I do believe that we are moving towards a gig economy. I do think there does need to be some sort of a restructuring of economic power and empowerment. Otherwise, I think that we will continue to see wage gaps growing, we will see a growing poor class.”
“I do not. I believe if you look at our tax collections have increased year over year over the last several years, California has the revenue it needs to be a successful and good, compassionate state….I'm not even sure it's constitutional quite frankly.”
“I have supported a wealth tax in the past, particularly coming out of San Francisco. and that wealth tax was more geared and centered around property….Voters passed an initiative that I was supportive of.”
In the short term, Gov. Gavin Newsom and legislators are urging the state’s two huge public employee pension funds to divest from Russia over its invasion of Ukraine. In the longer term, CalPERS and CalSTRS both face huge amounts of unfunded debt, forcing them to consider riskier investments in search of higher returns.
“We have made promises to state employees and teachers, we need to keep those promises. But we will be unable to keep them without, in my view, massive tax increases….Can we pay down some of those long term obligations? The Legislature's done a little bit of that to their credit, and the governor has agreed, but we need to be doing more.”
“State employees that have worked really hard, teachers that have worked really hard, I do believe that they should be able to retire and to count on their retirement. But I don't think we can naively continue being blind and relying on the robust state government or the robust budget and the governor to continue to pay the unfunded liability.”
“I believe as a general matter that these calls to divest in one thing or another are misguided…With specific reference to the situation in Russia I would favor some removal of state investment in those resources….First of all, it's a very small percentage of our total investments….And the notion that we are assisting the Russian war machine I think creates a fundamental national security challenge.”
“Divestment is always a hot issue, and it's an issue that I think that we have to be thoughtful and judicious about….There are many ways to begin to register your protests before a full divestment….I don't know how much money is invested into Russia.”
“I don't have any specific recommendations at this time, but I believe one of the things a controller should do is take their role on both the PERS and STRS board seriously.”
“I don't have a deep understanding of exactly their pension strategy. I haven't met with anyone so I don't have anything to offer in terms of change today.”