After primary, favorite is clear in California treasurer's race

  ·  The Bond Buyer   ·  Link to Article

LOS ANGELES — Two certified public accountants will face off in the California treasurer’s race come November.

The favorite is Democrat Fiona Ma, the first place finisher in the June 5 "top two" primary, who was more than a million and a half votes ahead in the counting through June 27, according to the California Secretary of State's office.

Ma, 52, is the former speaker pro tempore of the state Assembly and chairs the state's elected Board of Equalization, where she led reform efforts that transformed the once powerful board, riddled with charges of nepotism and questionable spending choices, into one that merely oversees property tax collection.

Her opponent is likely to be Republican Greg Conlon, who had 20.9% of the vote as of June 27, more than 100,000 voters ahead of fellow Republican Jack Guerrero, who had 19.3%.

With California's high level of voting by mail, it takes a while for final results to be tabulated. The results are not “official” until July 13.

The state treasurer's responsibilities include issuing state bonds; overseeing the state's Pooled Money Investment Account; and serving on the boards of the California Public Employees' Retirement System and California State Teachers' Retirement System.

Ma can be considered the favorite through raw partisan math; no Republican has won a statewide race in California since 2006, and Ma and the other Democrat in the treasurer's race, Vivek Viswanathan, together ran up more than 57% of the vote.

Ma worked with Controller Betty Yee on Board of Equalization reform efforts. Yee, running for a second term as controller, handily took first place in the primary, and will face Republican Konstantinos Roditis in the fall.

Yee conducted a financial audit that detailed problems with the board and Ma followed with a request for a human resources audit.

“They found that one out of five employees were related,” Ma said.

Ma also supports a bill to create a banking system for cannabis to make it easier to collect tax revenues on the drug, now legal under state law; and backs legislation that would bring back redevelopment agencies to increase the state’s investment in affordable housing.

“If you don’t have housing, jobs are going to leave,” Ma said. “If you don’t have people working here getting bonuses, stock options and capital gains, there is less money for schools and other state priorities.”

Her work to create a cannabis banking system would help the state collect taxes, because it's hard to tax without a paper trail, she said.

Conlon worked for 20 years at Arthur Andersen, which was one of the big five accounting firms before its involvement in the Enron scandal forced its 2002 closure. Conlon said had left the firm well before that to launch his own consulting practice. He served as president of the California Public Utilities Commission and on the California Transportation Commission under Gov. Pete Wilson.

Conlon is making his third bid for the job. He lost to Democrat Phil Angelides in 2002 and John Chiang in 2014.

Conlon said he has a good chance of winning the election, because the name recognition he has now that he is in his third campaign. In his prior two runs for treasurer, he was competing against incumbents, which, he said, isn’t the case now.

“I am more qualified than the other candidates,” Conlon said. “I am a CPA, who worked as a partner for 20 years auditing Fortune 500 companies.”

Ma racked up significant political experience and Democratic connections after entering politics in her late 20s.

In the primary, she landed more votes than top gubernatorial finisher Gavin Newsom, who admittedly faced a more crowded field, having to fend off well-known Democrats like former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and Chiang, the current state treasurer.

She was on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors from 2002 to 2006 and then served what was then the maximum three two-year terms permitted in the State Assembly.

While running her own CPA firm, Ma worked part-time for then state Sen. John Burton, who was head of the California Democratic Party from April 2009 until May 2017.

“She was fantastic. She never stopped working. It was like having two people in the position,” Burton said.

Burton said he wouldn’t bet against Ma, whom he described as tireless, and who has never lost an election.

“She wasn’t supposed to win her first supervisor race, but she did – and the person running against her was better financed and was pretty well known,” Burton said.

Ma worked as an accountant for Ernst & Young and then founded an accounting firm before entering the political arena.

Her work as president of Asia Inc., a Bay Area small business organization, led to her lobbying the county and fostered an interest in politics.

She won the election for county supervisor when she was 36.

“There were two women and nine men on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors then,” Ma said. “It was like a game of Survivor and everyone was trying to throw you off the island.”

She was in the faction that would support the vetoes of then-mayors Willie Brown and Gavin Newsom.

Ma supports high-speed-rail. With limited resources for transportation and needed school renovations and earthquake retrofits, she said she wants to make sure bonds sell at the best prices and that the bond program is managed wisely.

She also plans to take an active role in sponsoring bills and working with the legislature.

The candidates relish the opportunity to sit on the boards of the state’s two massive public pension funds.

“There seems to be a disconnect between the state and local governments,” Ma said. “The state lowered the discount rate, which pressured local governments. And the state’s attitude has been, ‘that is not our problem, it is theirs.’”

Having working at the local level, Ma said she appreciates the difficulties that attitude creates and says when decisions are made by the state they need to take the localities into consideration.

Conlon wants to eliminate pensions for future employees, giving them 401(k)-style defined contribution plans instead. He doesn’t think reform is possible for pensions for existing employees, because of current California law.

He would also change the state constitution to make the state treasurer and controller positions appointed, rather than elected, to “get more competent people who are non-partisan.”

Both Conlon and Ma plan to take a hard look at the bond program. Ma wants to know if there are bond programs with voter-approved bonds that have not been sold.

“I would evaluate the internal controls on the entire treasury operation including the bonds that are isolated and controlled by independent agencies,” Conlon said.

He wants to insure that bonds are never issued to subsidize operations like the $15 billion in deficit bonds issued during Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s administration that were finally paid off a year ago.

“We don’t want to issue bonds to subsidize our operations,” Conlon said. “You have to live on your income.”

He like Ma would like to have a hand in crafting a solution for the state to move past its budget dependence on income tax collections from high-net-worth individuals.

Conlon doesn’t think a AA-minus bond rating is a bragging right in a state as wealthy as California. Only three states have lower ratings than California, he said; it shouldn’t be near the bottom rung.

He says tacking pension liability problems would boost the ratings.

As a Republican, Conlon said he would target inefficiencies and look for places to cut as well as tax reform.

Ma said her biggest priorities are working on the housing problem, helping local governments to work through distress and tackling the underground economy – like cannabis sales – to create more revenue for the state.