Investing in the future of the Golden State

by Penelope Oliver | December 5, 2023 | 0 Comments
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A student interview with California State Treasurer Fiona Ma

The California State Treasurer manages the government finances of one of the five biggest economies on planet Earth. In a typical year, the office processes total payments in excess of $2 trillion.

Penelope Oliver

Penelope Oliver

Fiona Ma was elected to the office in 2018 and reelected in 2022. A Certified Public Accountant, (CPA), she previously served on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, in the California Assembly, and on the California State Board of Equalization.

I sat down with Treasurer Ma to learn about her responsibilities and to ask her advice for student leaders with an interest in California government. We also discussed her candidacy for Lieutenant Governor, and her priorities for education if elected.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

You oversee the investment portfolio of the fourth- or fifth-largest economy in the world, but not alone. How do you and State Controller Cohen collaborate?

The Controller and I both have a seat on all of the boards that I chair, so we have a good working relationship. We collaborate when the budget comes out every year and we work together to make sure the message is correct. Malia is like my little sister. I watched her grow up, so to speak.

How do you make your voice heard?

I weigh in on the budget, and I also weigh in on legislation. I work with members of the legislature to pass bills. I also put out statements on our social media platforms and stay engaged every day.

With the legislation you co-sponsor and sponsor, what are your priority issues?

Our committees fund and finance work in ten areas:

  • Affordable housing
  • Charter schools
  • Public transportation
  • Hospitals
  • Children's hospitals
  • Mental health beds
  • Green energy
  • Advanced manufacturing
  • Garbage
  • Recycling

I also have five savings programs, which I like to talk about because many people don't know about them, like CalKIDS. The legislature and the governor set aside over a billion dollars to give child savings to every newborn that was born after July 1st, 2022. The idea is to create an account for these children so that that money can grow and accumulate. When they go to higher education or a certified apprenticeship program, there will be a certain amount of money available for them.

You've been a CPA. You've been in the legislature. What advice do you have for student leaders like me who want to pursue a career in government or public policy?

What advice do you have for student leaders?

Seek internships! Pretty much all elected officials have them. There are Assembly and Senate fellowships; after you graduate, they become paid internship opportunities. If it’s a good match, fellows usually get a job with the member. I would also say volunteer on political campaigns. 2024 is going to be a big year. Your local government and the governor also have openings for appointments on boards and commissions, so that's another opportunity to apply.

You’ve announced that you are running for Lieutenant Governor in 2026. What would be your plans for public education if elected to that position?

Aligning community colleges with UC

We used to have pretty reasonable higher education in both the UC and CSU systems. Costs and tuition have been increasing, and so has the demand. Like the Lieutenant Governor, I support not raising tuition rates and trying to help the universities figure out other funding or resources. I am also focused on trying to figure out ways for the CSU system to increase its awareness, and reputation.

Community colleges are now free for every first-time college student. I highly recommend to young people that if they don't know what they're going to major in, they could save money and do well in a community college. They serve as feeders to UC — a lot of students don't know that there are sometimes guaranteed placements with your GPA.

During your service in the Assembly in 2011-12, you authored a bill for social science education in grades 7 through 12 to include the crucial participation of Filipinos in World War II. It was passed and signed into law — what was the background and the process for this legislation?

The Filipinos who fought in World War 2 helped the US as allies, but they did not get the same benefits that our veterans received. I was representing Daly City, which has a large Filipino population, including one of my staff members. Many in the Filipino community felt that it was important for the history books to recognize their role. These veterans didn't necessarily want money, but rather recognition. We started raising funds to get medals made for them — each was about $50 — to encourage them to tell their story while they were still alive. We must capture their stories for history.

My generation is very concerned about climate change. If elected Lieutenant Governor, what would your plans be for climate change action while serving on the State Lands Commission and the State Coastal Commission?

You're our next generation, our leaders. If your generation is coming out and taking a stand, the adults should be able to support young people. So that's number one. Number two, the governor just said he's going to sue six of the major oil companies for not alerting the public to the possible climate impacts of not going fast enough to transition to green energy. I think we're all listening to your generation. I think the whole world cares. The climate issue is real and people are concerned.

Do you want to share more about the programs you mentioned earlier?

“Parents should check CalKids to see if their child qualifies.”

Our newest program is Hope Accounts. Any child who lost a parent or guardian due to COVID-19 will get a certain amount of money — it could be like $1,000. If they are a long-time foster youth in the system for 18 months or more, they will also get an account.

We also run the Cal Grant Program for people who need a little bit of assistance. We're trying to get more money and private donations into the Cal Grant so that they can help subsidize higher education for young people.

Parents should check CalKIDS to see if their child qualifies.

Penelope Oliver Penelope Oliver (Ella/Su) es una adolescente de Sacramento, California, que ha servido como Embajadora de Alcance de Ed100 y como pasante de políticas. Sus principales pasiones son el activismo, la igualdad racial y de género, la justicia climática, la inmigración y la equidad educativa. A menudo se le encuentra escribiendo poesía, haciendo voluntariado o educando a otros sobre la participación cívica. Síguela en Instagram en @penelopethepowerfulpoet.

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