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Six Questions for State Controller Candidate Malia Cohen
Bo Tefu | California Black Media

This article is part of California Black Media’s series of interviews with the candidates running for California State Controller.

In 2018, Malia Cohen made history when she became the first Black woman elected chair of the California State Board of Equalization.

Cohen has used her time in office to advocate for social justice and inclusion while representing the interests of taxpayers.

In March, the California Democratic Party endorsed Cohen’s run for State Controller.

Recently, California Black Media (CBM) spoke with Cohen about her plans to promote transparency and accountability as well as ensure the fair and equitable management of taxpayer money.

The conversation has been edited for clarity and concision.

From your perspective, what is the State Controller’s main function?

We understand there is an inequitable distribution of wealth — not only this country, but also in the state of California. The Controller is responsible for the disbursement of tax dollars. The State Controller pays the bills on behalf of the state. She writes the checks. The role is independent and has some fiscal oversight of state funding.

The Controller also sits on 76 different boards and commissions. The Franchise Tax Board, State Lands Commission, and the Board of Equalization are key economic entities that affect the Black Community. These groups are responsible for setting policies that impact the quality of life for Black people.

The Controller also works closely with businesses and nonprofit organizations including religious institutions and Greek organizations.

Other important entities are state pension funds CalPERS and CalSTRS. Now, this is important because if you are a retired teacher or a retired state employee, you want to make sure that your retirement is there. The State Controller makes sure that the assets that are under management, the investments are growing and that we are making smart and prudent choices.

Why are you running for Controller?

I am running to make sure that spending of tax dollars is equitable, also to be an independent voice in state government.

During the pandemic, we saw where the state’s resources failed. It was mostly among communities of color. We had limited access to PPE loans and other resources. A disproportionate number of homeless people are African American. I want to make sure that state tax dollars are being spent properly. An audit of the state’s spending can help us figure out how to address those issues.

The Democratic Party has endorsed you. Do you feel being a Democrat gives you an advantage?

Although the Democratic Party is my affiliation, it is a misnomer to assume that one would not be able to be independent because you are a Democrat. Most of the elected leadership in the Democratic Party have not made an endorsement in this race.

I want to highlight that because the independence of the state Controller is not beholden to anyone.

What experience do you bring to this position?

With my legislative background, I’ve performed many audits in the city and county of San Francisco. I’ve managed billions in tax dollars and was able to save over $41 million during my time as the chair of the budget committee. I built my investment experience working seven years with the Employee Retirement Fund. Statewide, I represent 23 counties with 10 million people in various communities that are familiar with the work I have done on the California Board of Equalization.

Currently, I work directly with two major budgets under the Board of Equalization that bring in $80 billion and $97 billion into state government.

As the chair of the Progressive Caucus, my experience with diversity and inclusion can help build coalitions.

If you win, what will be your priority?

First, I want to get an audit going on the Employee Development Department. State programs such as EDD help people get access to different resources such as CalFresh and state assistance. However, these programs did not work well during the pandemic. My goal is to develop a strike team to better understand where, why, and how the breakdown of the EDD program happened.

Another priority is the main accounting system for the entire state of California. My goal is to get this accounting system up and operational. It is paramount to supporting small businesses because it helps us understand where the money is being spent and what programs are receiving tax dollars.

The main issues disproportionately affecting Black communities are homelessness, reproductive rights, and affordable housing. We want affordable housing unit projects to be expedited to the top of the list so that we are able to get housing onto the market to relieve the tension of the homelessness crisis.

We also want to make sure those tax dollars provide stellar health care and access to that health care — Especially in low income and rural communities that have limited clinics and health facilities.

One thing I do want to talk about is unclaimed property. Unclaimed property is your money that you may have forgotten about. It is housed in the Controller’s office.

I am flagging this is because there was a time when unclaimed property was advertised in ethnic media.

I would like to reinstate the state’s program for unclaimed property. In previous years, the state would advertise unclaimed property in local newspapers. We need to reintroduce that system to share valuable information with the public. It would redirect state tax dollars to local media, providing a steady flow of revenue, especially for ethnic media.

How do you describe your leadership style and how does that match with the demands of being State Controller?

I see myself as a collaborative leader. That’s why I’ve been able to build a strong coalition and build support in urban, rural and urban parts of California. I can get answers that address daily challenges of working Californians.

My primary goal is to connect with the people instead of working with lawyers and lobbyists. People in the workforce need an advocate in the finance space. I can support that need.

Get more info on Malia Cohen.


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