Far from the tax-and-spend Democrat that Washington partisans make him out to be, Californians know that Gov. Jerry Brown has been relentless about socking away billions of dollars in the state’s “rainy day” fund, while also warning about a coming economic downturn.
“What’s out there is darkness, uncertainty, decline and recession,” Brown said in January, unveiling the final budget of his administration. “So good luck, baby.”
Indeed, this is no time to take California’s booming economy for granted. So it is important that in the top-two primary on June 5 voters pick the right candidates to safeguard the state’s financial future. Here’s who we recommend:
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Of the four candidates, Fiona Ma is, by far, the best choice. A certified public accountant, former speaker pro tempore of the Assembly and current vice chairwoman of the Board of Equalization, she has broad knowledge of tax policy and state government, making her an ideal fit for California’s top asset manager and banker.
Most recently, Ma made headlines for trying to ferret out nepotism, murky accounting and excess on the Board of Equalization. Her persistent digging and calls for oversight laid the groundwork for bringing the tax board down to a more reasonable size. If elected, she promises to continue that commitment to transparency and accountability.
She also says she’ll be far more active in the Legislature than her low-key predecessor John Chiang, who has endorsed her. That’s a good thing. Already Ma is supporting a bill to create a banking system for cannabis, allowing the state to collect millions of dollars in additional tax revenue. She also is backing legislation that would bring back redevelopment agencies, addressing her goal to increase the state’s investment in affordable housing and expand a first-time homebuyer program.
Unfunded pensions continue to be liability for California and, as treasurer, Ma would sit on the boards of CalPERS and CalSTRS. Finding ways to reduce those costs must be a priority.
Another viable choice for treasurer is Greg Conlon. The Republican served as president of the California Public Utilities Commission and on the California Transportation Commission under former Gov. Pete Wilson. He’s a CPA and has worked as a consultant and conducted financial audits of Fortune 500 companies.
Conlon, who also ran for treasurer in 2014, takes a darker view of the state’s economic condition. He sees the state’s stellar credit rating as misleading, and has pledged to push for tax cuts and focus on the state’s pension and health care obligations to future employees.
Two other candidates, Jack Guerroro, mayor of Cudahy, and Vivek Viswanathan, a former Hillary Clinton aide, have good ideas and energy, but lack experience.
Incumbent Betty Yee has served admirably as California’s chief financial officer and deserves another term. So far, she has focused on getting the state ready for a downturn, rooting out fraud and waste by conducting audits of small cities and Central Valley water districts with weak financial controls and, of course, gutting the Board of Equalization.
Going forward, her plan is to “frame the conversation” around tax reform – a smart move. It’s not sustainable for California to continue relying on a small group of wealthy people to fill the state’s coffers. The same is true for the operations of CalPERS and CalSTRS, which Yee says also will be a focus.
Rounding out the ballot is Konstantinos Roditis, an Orange County businessman. The Republican is running on an interesting, if far-fetched, plan to broaden the state’s tax base and restructure the tax code using what he calls “trickle-up-taxation.” If elected, Roditis said he will focus most of his energy on putting it on the 2020 ballot. He has been endorsed by the California Republican Party.
Mary Lou Finley, member of the a Peace and Freedom Party, is running as well.
Board of Equalization, District 1
Once an all-powerful tax agency, the duties of the tax board have been stripped down to overseeing property tax collection. More than a few candidates say there should be a ballot measure to do away with the rest of the tax board entirely. Some elected officials have said the same thing.
Still, four candidates are vying for the District 1 seat held by a termed-out George Runner.
To fill it, voters should look first to David Evans, a CPA and former mayor of California City who also ran for the Board of Equalization in 2014. Evans is a proponent of keeping the tax board, if only so taxpayers and won’t have to deal with bureaucrats instead. He is open, however, to perhaps reducing the number of meetings and eliminating some support staff.
Another viable choice is Connie Conway, a Republican who spent years in the Assembly and as president of the California State Association of Counties. She is currently a member of the Community College Board of Governors. Although incensed about the way the Democrats gutted the tax board, Conway said she wants to fix what’s left of it from the inside by focusing on taxpayers.
Other candidates include Republican Ted Gaines, who was elected to the Legislature again in 2016. He’d be a capable board member, given the breadth of his experience in state government, but if elected, taxpayers would have to fork over money for a special election to replace Gaines in the state Senate.
Tom Hallinan, the only Democrat in the race, also has the smarts. But, if elected, he has vowed to dismantle what’s left of the Board of Equalization.
That might prove necessary at some point, but we prefer a more measured approach – just as we do for California’s economy.