In a nearly hour-long interview with CalMatters, state Treasurer Fiona Ma talks about her accomplishments on housing, her priority to fix up local fairgrounds, and what she’s doing differently after a lawsuit from a former employee.
Fiona Ma has a few factors working in her favor to win a second term as state treasurer.
She’s an incumbent and a Democrat in a majority-blue state. She has vastly outraised her opponent, Republican Jack Guerrero, $2 million to $20,000. And thanks to soaring state tax revenues fueled by stock gains by some of the richest Californians, plus billions in federal relief during the COVID pandemic, the state has had record budget surpluses the last two years while she’s been the state’s top banker, responsible for managing its assets and investments.
That may be why Ma is more focused on seeing through policies she’s managed or introduced in her four years in office — not on dramatically shifting gears.
During her first term, Ma oversaw a revamp of programs to finance affordable housing and housing for homeless people, funding for clean energy projects and the rollout of CalSavers, a program that helps lower-income Californians save for retirement.
But her tenure hasn’t been without controversy. She’s the subject of a lawsuit filed by a former employee who alleges sexual harassment and discrimination. Ma told CalMatters the lawsuit was frivolous, and that she looks forward to her day in court.
Ma won 57% of the vote in the June primary, compared to 22% for Guerrero, so her chances of winning on Nov. 8 are strong.
“I’ve been on the ballot 19 times,” she said in a nearly hour-long interview with CalMatters last week. “I haven’t lost yet, but I don’t take anything for granted.”
Here are other key takeaways from the interview:
The haves and have-nots
Ma said while it’s a misconception that Californians are leaving the state in droves, she is concerned about the wealthy eventually decamping for states with lower taxes. They are willing to pay their fair share of taxes, she says, but dislike being criticized, especially on social media.
“The top 1% pay or contribute about 49% of our state’s general fund. That’s a lot, right? We are highly dependent on high net worth individuals,” she said. “People want to live here in California, they don’t mind paying a little … tax, but if they feel like they’re being demonized every day and not treated with respect like everybody else wants to be treated, I think that’s where we start seeing high net worth individuals looking to leave the state.”
Along those same lines, she opposes a “wealth tax,” increases in the tax rate for the state’s top earners, and — joining Gov. Gavin Newsom — said publicly for the first time in the interview that she’s against Proposition 30, a measure on the Nov. 8 ballot that would tax millionaires to fund electric vehicle programs.
But at the other end of the income scale , Ma doesn’t support a further increase to the minimum wage, which is set to hit $15.50 an hour on Jan. 1, with cost-of-living increases after that.
At the same time, she acknowledged that’s not a living wage for families. So she does support a universal basic income, which the state is testing.
Ma also noted that during the pandemic, the state has provided relief to struggling tenants, aid to keep restaurants open and, now, grants for performing arts organizations that went dark.
“I just see this state as very generous and very mindful of who is still struggling here,” she said.
Still, Ma, the first woman of color to serve as treasurer, said the state could do more to make sure that immigrant communities — including Asian-American owners of small businesses pummeled by the pandemic — benefit from state programs.
‘Housing, housing, housing’
Reducing California’s shortage of affordable housing is one of Ma’s main priorities. Aside from managing, investing and issuing state bonds, she leads four committees that allocate funds for affordable housing, and she says she’s been actively involved in reforms to regulations, deadlines and more.
Thanks to $500 million in low-income housing tax credits and two rounds of federal wildfire disaster credits, the state has also approved more tax credit applications for new construction than ever before, Ma says, giving the green light to “a lot of the projects that have been on the shelf for many, many years now.” She said her office distributed funding throughout the state rather than concentrating it in the larger metropolitan areas.
The state also, for the first time, sold bonds to build student housing at community colleges, and started the “Dream for All” program to help first-time homebuyers with down payments for mortgages.
“Those are just a couple of the programs, but housing, housing, housing,” she said.
Ma said the treasurer’s office has also made sure different agencies are using the same deadlines and definitions, streamlining the application process.
That’s why she opposed Assembly Bill 2305 — which would have centralized affordable housing funding programs — even though the state auditor in 2020 blamed lack of coordination for the state’s mismanagement of $2.7 billion in bonds.
“Creating another board that oversees the four agencies, to me at this point, is bureaucratic and not needed,” she said, adding that the existing boards hold public meetings and have public agendas and minutes, while the proposed centralized board did not have that transparency.
A focus on fairgrounds
Asked where she believes the state could spend more money, Ma had a surprising answer for her top priority: To fix up the 79 county fairgrounds.
Traditionally used for agriculture, fairgrounds are supposed to be affordable sites where families can host birthday parties and quinceaneras and where communities can hold events that boost local small businesses and nonprofit groups. They’re also used during wildfires as emergency centers, after which they’re not often left in great shape, she said.
But there’s been little upkeep for their infrastructure.
If the state doesn’t want to take sole responsibility for the upgrades, Ma says it could partner with local governments. Since she served on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, she says she understands the need for local control.
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Clearing the air
Here’s what Ma said about some of the controversies she has faced while in office:
- On the lawsuit, filed in July 2021 by what Ma called a “disgruntled” former employee, Ma declined to address the specific allegations — that she made unwanted sexual advances, discriminated on the basis of race and disability, and wrongfully terminated the worker. But when pressed, Ma did confirm that she has changed several policies and practices: She no longer stays overnight when in Sacramento for work, and has stopped sharing hotel rooms with subordinates when she does travel.
- In March 2020, the state narrowly avoided wiring $457 million — a 75% down payment on a $609 million deal — to a fraudulent company for masks in the early days of the COVID pandemic. Two banks involved in the transfer contacted Ma’s office to flag the transaction, which two other departments had said they had vetted. In 2020, Ma testified before an Assembly committee and said the sense of urgency and panic, and competition with the federal government and other states for supplies, “colored the normal processes in selecting and vetting approved vendors.”
Since then, Ma told CalMatters, her office has done additional vetting to avoid such situations. “That was a lesson learned,” she said.
- In 2021, she supported a bill that changed state pension rules — and that Santa Ana police union president Gerry Serrano and her office were involved in drafting — by counting his union salary toward his pension to boost his retirement benefits
Ma said that many constituents ask the treasurer’s office for help, as Serrano did, and others are in a similar situation. The bill, which was signed into law in September 2021, allows CalPERS to review the agreements before people retire to prevent costly lawsuits when there are conflicts.
“I like to try to fix problems,” she said. “I am still actively involved in the legislative process. And when I see something that needs to be fixed, moving forward, that is good for the state of California, good for the people, that saves money in the long term, I will engage.”
Ma has climbed the ranks, from president of a local business association to the San Francisco board of supervisors, to the state Assembly to statewide office as treasurer.
She has expressed interest in the governor’s office. Asked about any plans to run in 2026, Ma said she’s “not a no.”
“Four years is a long time in politics. Things change, situations change, people change. So we’ll just have to see after this election.”