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May 31-June 6, 2006

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Steve Westly

Photograph by Felipe Buitrago
Get Ready for June 6: Steve Westly is our pick for governor of California. Read what the state leader and other elected officials actually do below, then click here for a ballot-box cheat sheet with all of our endorsements.

What Are We Voting For?

An election-eve guide to what these people on the ballot are actually supposed to do if they win

By Patricia Lynn Henley

ANOTHER election season is here, and that means another attempt to make sense of the voter's 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 exactly 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?

In order to soothe the minds of weary voters too overwhelmed by the complexities of daily life to have the time to do the research for themselves, Metro offers this handy 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 (answers at the end).

Follow the Money

California voters elect both a controller and a treasurer (same salary for each position: $140,000). What's the difference? 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.

Basically, the controller's job is to keep track of the cash flow. "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, meanwhile, manages 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. 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 a five-member board—the controller and four others, all elected. The board has 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.

Now, one would expect that the lieutenant governor (salary: $131,250) would be the governor's personally selected right-hand person, 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. This is largely a ceremonial role, although the lieutenant governor can propose legislation that is then voted on by the senators. 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 Lands Commission, which has jurisdiction over California's public lands and navigable waterways; and chairing the Committee for Economic Development, which promotes business and trade in California. Bottom line: lots and lots of long meetings to attend.

Bureaucrat Lightning Round

  • California's attorney general (salary: $148,750) can't really be compared to a corporate attorney, because the person holding this job has a dual role both as top legal counsel for the state and as 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 state superintendent of public instruction (salary: $148,750) is the head of California's public school system, overseeing more than 1,000 school districts and 6.3 million schoolchildren 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.

    Class is adjourned. Now get out there and vote.

    Bonus point answers! Current office-holders are: 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).

    Some Campaign Parties on Election Night

    Michael Mulcahy Starts 7pm. San Jose Hilton and Towers, 300 Almaden Blvd., San Jose

    Chuck Reed When polls close, 7, 8pm. Campaign Headquarters, 1401 Parkmoor, Suite 120, San Jose

    David Pandori When polls close, 7, 8pm. Campaign Headquarters, 1090 Lincoln Ave., Suite 7, San Jose

    Dave Cortese When polls close, 7, 8pm. Campaign Headquarters, 434 Park Ave., San Jose

    Ken Yeager 8pm, Hobee's Restaurant at Pruneyard, 1875 S. Bascom Ave., Campbell

    Jim Shore The Vault UltraLounge, 81 West Santa Clara St, San Jose

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