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What Do They Do? 

Elected officials' duties not always crystal clear


May 17-23, 2006


Another election season is here, and citizens must attempt to make sense of the voters pamphlet and sample ballot. Candidates provide lofty statements of their aspirations, but few voters remember enough from high school civics class to know the actual duties of a particular office.

Quick: What does California's controller do? How about the treasurer, secretary of state, members of the Board of Equalization, the lieutenant governor or even the governor? Worry not. The Bohemian offers this handy-dandy guide to who is supposed to do what and what they get paid for many of the statewide offices listed on the June 6 ballot. Extra points for knowing who currently holds these offices.

Follow the Money

California voters elect both a controller and a treasurer (same salary for each position: $140,000). What's the dif? The controller pays the state's bills to the tune of about $100 billion annually, while the treasurer handles its multibillion-dollar investments. If the state were a corporation, the controller would be its chief financial officer and the treasurer its chief investment officer.

"We have the checkbook," says Garin Casaleggio, a spokesman for the controller's office. "Not only do we write the checks, we analyze claims [for reimbursement], write the paychecks for the state employees and perform fiscal audits--did they get the money, did they spend the money correctly." The controller serves on 62 boards and commissions, including the State Board of Equalization.

California's treasurer keeps equally busy, managing roughly $60 billion in cash-on-hand in what is known as the pooled investment account, a mixture of state funds and money kicked in by local governments who want to take advantage of the state's financial expertise. The treasurer also serves on the boards of the public-employee and teacher retirement systems, which together have assets of more than $300 billion. That's a fair amount of money. And, of course, the treasurer chairs a long list of highly technical financing boards and commissions.

One can't run a government without collecting taxes. A great deal of money is funneled in through the Board of Equalization (salary: $131,250 per member), which collects all taxes other than income or employment. That means sales and property taxes, as well as special assessments. This department was created in 1879 to ensure that property tax assessments were done uniformly and equally statewide, hence the word "equalization" in this agency's name. The board is governed by five members; the controller and four others, all elected. There are approximately 3,800 employees and an annual budget of $378.6 million.

At the Top

California's governor (salary: $175,000) has both more and less power than a corporate CEO. The governor can propose legislation or veto laws created by the legislature, but can't simply decree something to be a law. The governor proposes a state budget each year, but has to negotiate with the state legislators to get an actual fiscal plan approved. It's that pesky "balance of power" thing, where the authority of the state's top executive office is tempered against the legislative and judicial branches.

Few CEOs have quite so many restrictions on their power; just ask Kenneth Lay. However, the governor has the ability to grant pardons and commute sentences, and is commander-in-chief of the state militia, duties well beyond those of most CEOs. In essence, the governor's job is less like that of a CEO and more like that of a scaled-down president. He represents California at formal occasions, welcoming visiting dignitaries and all that, but has to work with the Legislature and within the law (we hope) to get things done.

Now, one would expect that the lieutenant governor (salary: $131,250) would be the governor's personally selected right-hand man (or woman), but that couldn't be more wrong. The governor and lieutenant governor are elected separately, and voters, in their infinite wisdom, often choose candidates for these offices who adhere to opposing political platforms, as with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante.

This can lead to interesting situations, because when the governor goes out of state, the lieutenant governor is in charge. There's a tacit agreement that the lieutenant governor won't do anything more than perfunctory activities while the governor's gone. However, Lt. Gov. Mike Curb signed several executive orders in 1979 that were at odds with the goals of then-governor Jerry Brown's administration while Brown was away stumping for loftier positions out of state. Given that Brown was gone for almost a year, the courts upheld Curb's legal right to do this.

The lieutenant governor is also president of the state senate. Other official duties include sitting on the money-heavy board of regents for the University of California and California State University systems; serving as a member of the State Land Commission; and chairing the Committee for Economic Development, which promotes business and trade in California. Bottom line: lots of long meetings to attend.

The Rest of Them

  • California's attorney general (salary: $148,750) can't really be compared to a corporate attorney, because one holding this job has a dual role as both top legal counsel for the state and California's top law enforcement officer. The attorney general provides legal opinions to state officers, agencies, boards and commissions, but is also supposed to make sure all state laws are uniformly and adequately enforced. The attorney general oversees 1,000 deputy attorneys general who coordinate investigations with county district attorneys, providing support as needed. They also represent the state in trials at the appellate and California Supreme Court levels, and coordinate statewide investigations started by the attorney general's office.
  • In addition to running the state's elections and keeping tabs on campaign funding and lobbyists' activities, the secretary of state (salary: $131,250) charters corporations; commissions notary publics; oversees the state archives; files a range of financial, tax and legal documents; and serves as a trustee of the California State History Museum. The secretary's approximately 450 employees handle a number of other functions, including assigning chapter numbers to newly approved laws, filing the oaths of office of the governor's appointees and filing regulations adopted by state departments, boards and agencies. In a funny way, the secretary of state job is fairly secretarial and administrative, but with heavy emphasis on creating fair and legal elections, something a corporate secretary possibly doesn't handle often enough.
  • The state superintendent of public instruction (salary: $148,750) is the head of California's public school system, overseeing more than a thousand school districts and 6.3 million school children from kindergarten to 12th grade, as well as adult education and some preschool programs. This is more of a policy and administration position rather than a hands-on or on-campus job. "He gets the big picture," says spokeswoman Pam Slater. "He's a facilitator. He's more interested in goals and principles." And actually, the 11 members of the State Board of Education, all appointed by the governor, are the ones who vote on official policies. The state superintendent works with the board and also manages the state department of education, with an annual budget of about $62 billion, or one-third of the total state budget. The department sets standards and selects curriculum and textbooks used by students throughout California.
  • Last but certainly not least, the office of the insurance commissioner (salary: $140,000) was created in 1988 when voters approved Proposition 103. With 1,326 staff positions and a current annual budget of $202 million, this office is a consumer-protection agency focused solely on insurance. The commissioner is responsible for licensing all insurance companies, approving any rate increases or decreases, and investigating corporate fraud. Insurance companies who want to do business in California have to apply for a certificate of authority from the insurance commission. In essence, this voter-created position is an experiment to see whether an elected official governing private companies provides greater accountability to voters or if large, multinational insurance companies continue to hold undue power and influence.
  • Class adjourned. Now get out there and vote.


    Current office-holders: controller (Steve Westly); treasurer (Phil Angelides); secretary of state (Bruce McPherson); attorney general (Bill Lockyer); superintendent of public instruction (Jack O'Connell); insurance commissioner (John Garamendi); Board of Equalization (John Chiang, Bill Leonard, Claudia Parrish, Steve Westly, Betty T. Yee)





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