EDITORIAL: Aggressive watchdog needed as controller

FresnoApril 11, 2014 

Three experienced candidates are running to become California's next controller, an office that in the right hands can be a force for fiscal responsibility and accountability.

Based on campaign fundraising, Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez, a Los Angeles Democrat, is the front-runner heading into the June primary, having amassed $2.4 million.

Pérez, who is termed out of the Assembly, has been in the midst of budget negotiations since he arrived in the lower house five years ago, and has ample knowledge to execute the controller's duties.

Campaign coffers aside, The Bee recommends two other candidates: Board of Equalization member Betty Yee, a Democrat, and Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin, a Republican. Yee and Swearengin are the candidates who, if elected, most likely would focus on the job of being controller.

Yee has spent three decades working in state government, starting as a legislative staffer, becoming a top Department of Finance official and budget adviser to Gov. Gray Davis, and chief of staff to former Board of Equalization member Carole Migden before winning election in 2006 to the board, which adjudicates tax disputes.

On the Board of Equalization, Yee has avoided conflicts, unlike some other members who have shown a proclivity to find in favor of campaign donors.

Yee turns down tobacco industry donations, for example. The board often is called upon to decide tobacco tax matters. The controller's duties include sitting on the Board of Equalization.

The controller also serves on the boards that oversee the massive California State Teachers' Retirement System and the California Public Employees' Retirement System. Pérez, Yee and Swearengin would be sympathetic toward retirees' needs. They might heed wishes of the public employee unions that seek to influence the board.

But Pérez, who was a labor official before winning his Assembly seat, is much more likely to heed the public employee unions that seek to influence the pension boards than Yee and Swearengin.

No less than 28.5% of the $2.4 million Pérez has raised for the controller's race has come from labor unions. Labor has accounted for 13% of Yee's $752,000. Swearengin, a late entrant into the race, has raised less than $100,000.

As Fresno mayor, Swearengin presides over a city that was hard hit during the recession. With the City Council, she made many unpopular cuts and enabled Fresno to avoid bankruptcy.

Swearengin butted heads with public employee unions by pushing to outsource municipal garbage collection. She also is willing to cross many in her Republican Party. For example, she supports the proposed high-speed rail system, correctly viewing it as a way for the Central Valley to emerge from the economic doldrums.

At its best, the controller is a watchdog whose auditors uncover misfeasance, as termed out Controller John Chiang did when he audited the corrupt city of Bell.

Chiang, who is running for treasurer, halted legislators' pay in 2011 after concluding they had failed to pass a balanced budget. He also garnered attention by placing the salaries of public employees on a public website.

Yee or Swearengin would build on those accomplishments and serve as independent and aggressive watchdogs of taxpayers' dollars.

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