Betty Yee the only qual­i­fied op­tion for state con­troller job

The Mercury News Weekend - - OPINION -

When it comes to pay­ing the state’s bill, keep­ing the books and au­dit­ing govern­ment ex­pen­di­tures, there’s only one can­di­date on the bal­lot qual­i­fied to be Cal­i­for­nia’s con­troller: Betty Yee.

Don’t mis­un­der­stand. This isn’t a full-throated em­brace of her can­di­dacy. It’s a recog­ni­tion that the other two can­di­dates in the race are un­pre­pared for the as­sign­ment.

Repub­li­can Kon­stanti­nos Rodi­tis, founder of a South­ern Cal­i­for­nia cab com­pany, and Peace and Free­dom Party can­di­date-Mary Lou Fin­ley, a re­tired spe­cial ed­u­ca­tion as­sis­tant, lack the skills to run the crit­i­cal state agency of about 1,300 em­ploy­ees. Nei­ther has ex­pe­ri­ence in state govern­ment and nei­ther has the fi­nan­cial back­ground to take on a job of this mag­ni­tude.

The con­troller also serves on about 70 boards and com­mis­sions, in­clud­ing those over­see­ing the Fran­chise Tax Board, Board of Equal­iza­tion and the na­tion’s two largest pub­lic em­ployee pen­sion funds, CalPERS and CalSTRS.

Yee, a Democrat, has decades of bud­get, fi­nance and pol­icy ex­pe­ri­ence in Sacra­mento. She wasn’t our pick for the job in 2014 when she nar­rowly made the runoff be­fore beat­ing Repub­li­can Fresno Mayor Ash­ley Swearen­gin in the gen­eral elec­tion.

But she has been a com­pe­tent leader. And she’s think­ing about some of the state’s most press­ing is­sues, among them the strong like­li­hood that the state’s highly volatile tax rev­enues will shrink rapidly in the next eco­nomic down­turn, which is over­due.

It’s “what keeps me up at night,” Yee says. “The tim­ing is right to talk about com­pre­hen­sive tax re­form.” She’s ab­so­lutely right. Now she needs to use the bully pul­pit of her of­fice to push state leg­is­la­tors and the new gov­er­nor to act.

Most agree that the state is overly de­pen­dent on in­come taxes to bal­ance its books. The prob­lem has wors­ened un­der Gov. Jerry Brown, who in­creased the state’s danger­ous reliance.

Yee should also lead the push to shore up our badly un­der­funded pub­lic em­ployee pen­sion funds, es­pe­cially the Cal­i­for­nia Pub­lic Em­ploy­ees’ Re­tire­ment Sys­tem.

CalPERS at the end of last year had only about 71 per­cent of the funds it should have. The next eco­nomic down­turn could leave it in a pre­car­i­ous fi­nan­cial position.

Yee is a strong de­fender of tra­di­tional pen­sions, which pro­vide pre­dictable monthly in­come to re­tirees un­til their deaths. We fun­da­men­tally agree.

The ques­tion is how large those pen­sions should be and how they should be funded. Pen­sion plans across the state, and na­tion, are in a pickle be­cause they have of­fered ben­e­fits they can’t af­ford and banked on un­re­al­is­ti­cally high in­vest­ment re­turn fore­casts rather than re­quir­ing ad­e­quate con­tri­bu­tions.

It’s here that Yee gets squishy. She sup­ports Brown’s Supreme Court chal­lenge to the state’s pen­sion vest­ing rules that lock state and lo­cal govern­ments into un­af­ford­able ben­e­fits.

But she con­tin­ues to cling to CalPERS’ un­re­al­is­tic as­sump­tions that it will earn 7 per­cent an­nu­ally, even though the sys­tem’s con­sul­tants fore­cast only 6.2 per­cent over the next decade. It’s dis­ap­point­ing, es­pe­cially com­ing from the state con­troller.

This year, Yee is clearly the only vi­able al­ter­na­tive vot­ers have. We hope, in her sec­ond term, that she’ll step up on these key is­sues.

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