What would Malia Cohen do as California controller?
There are two parts to the controller’s job, Malia Cohen says.
There are the everyday functions — writing checks, conducting audits, making policy recommendations and serving on nearly 80 boards, including ones that oversee state employee retirement funds.
But Cohen says the position is also a platform to make California more equitable and to promote more diverse leadership — goals that she is passionate, even emotional, about and a role that she says she is well prepared for from her time on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors and state Board of Equalization.
“I think that we do need to elect strong people with strong values that are not afraid to stand up and are not afraid to speak out,” the Democratic candidate told CalMatters reporters and editors.
“I think that we need to have more diversity, I think we need to have more conversations about equity, what that looks like in the distribution of tax dollars….I don’t want to see strong programs, child care programs, educational programs after-school programs, food programs not get funded because they don’t have a lobbyist, they don’t have an advocate.”Cohen says the state’s response to COVID revealed the dire, sometimes deadly, consequences of ignoring communities of color.
“I’m going to make sure that we learn from the mistakes from the pandemic,” she said. “Why did it happen? Because the constituency that I represented where I come from — people suffered, people died, people got sick, people lost their jobs. And I saw people coming to a side of the town that they would not normally come into just to get vaccination, cutting the line.”
If Cohen convinces enough voters that she’s the right candidate, she would be the second controller in a row to move up from the Board of Equalization, following Betty Yee, who has served two terms and is no longer eligible to run for re-election. But first, she has to finish among the top two vote-getters in a competitive June 7 primary just to make it to the November general election.
Here are three other key takeaways from her CalMatters interview:
A controller’s role is to ensure the state is spending its money wisely, including cutting waste. But what does that mean to the average person?
“I explain it like, well, I make sure that big corporations like Amazon don’t snake through loopholes and that they’re paying their fair share when it comes to property taxes,” Cohen said. “I say making sure that corporations like PG&E…[are] paying their fair share in taxes. Small taxpayers, people who own their homes, they’re paying their taxes, and we want to be very fair and very consistent and also transparent.”
As chairperson of the Board of Equalization, Cohen has overseen the distribution of $80 billion in tax revenue to local governments and schools. She also cut spending on office space and launched an initiative in 2019 to modernize property tax collection.
She pledges to continue the watchdog role as controller, saying that she wants to scrutinize the Employment Development Department and the Department of Motor Vehicles, plus the state’s homelessness programs. Cohen also intends to audit companies receiving research and development tax credits to ensure the jobs promised are being created. She also wants to advance pay equity, beginning with a review of the controller’s office, according to her equity roadmap.
“I am running to say, ‘I’m here, I’m in this space, I’m at the table and I’m watching and I am going to keep people accountable,’” she said.
Cohen says she will also give the public critical analysis on issues such as abortion, housing and tax policy — and do more so taxpayers know where their money is going.
“I could be lazy, I could just sit back and do just the bare minimum of the requirements,” she said. “And quite honestly, as I’ve been talking about this race and my vision for the controller seat, a lot of people have not been receptive of a big picture of what a controller’s office could actually be, and I’ve been told that I’m running for the wrong position. And I vehemently disagree.”
Despite seeing an expanded policy role for the controller, Cohen did not take a stand on some pressing issues now before the Legislature, such as another stimulus payment, or a pause on the gas tax.
Instead, she focused on the administrative functions, pledging 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.”
Cohen also didn’t take a stand on whether the state’s public pension funds ought to divest from Russian companies in response to the invasion of Ukraine. She said she needed more information first.
As for projections that the state won’t be able to pay all the pensions it has committed to public employees, Cohen acknowledges the competing interests that need to be weighed. “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,” she said.
At the same time, Cohen notes, the state can’t continue to rely on always having a robust budget.
“I am concerned about the fiscal health for the state of California, just the economic direction that we’re going to be going in,” she said. “I don’t see it as a sustainable long-term strategy.”
Working with fellow Democrats
Since 1975, voters have elected only Democrats to the office. Cohen has the official party endorsement. One of her primary challengers, Republican Lanhee Chen, is promising to be an independent watchdog on the Democratic Legislature and administration.
While Cohen said her party affiliation won’t hurt her effectiveness in the job, she plans a more collaborative approach.
“My style is not, ‘I got you, aha.’ I’m not trying to catch you in the hot seat,” she said. “I’m not trying to catch you in a lie or even embarrass you. That has never been my leadership style.”
“My style really is if I find an audit and I find something that is glaring or could potentially be embarrassing, talking to the person. Just having an honest conversation and saying, ‘This is what I found, what can we do about this?’”
If elected, Cohen would also become California’s first Black controller, but doesn’t see that affecting how she does the job, either. But she does urge voters to consider her background:
“I think that being the sum total of a different set of life experiences does make me a unique candidate in this race.”