California State Treasurer Addresses Rotary Luncheon

The Rotary Club of Beverly Hills welcomed California State Treasurer Fiona Ma to its June 17 luncheon. Ma took office in 2019 after serving as a member of the California Board of Equalization, the California State Assembly and the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. The child of Chinese immigrants, Ma described the interesting path that led her to become the banker to the world’s fifth-largest economy. As Treasurer, she receives all the state revenue, including taxes, fines, fees, interest and penalties, amounting to $3.7 trillion. Her office manages a short-term portfolio of about $180 billion and issues all the bonds for the state of California, the UC and Cal State University systems. 

“I fund and finance affordable housing, schools, public transportation, hospitals, green energy advanced manufacturing… If anyone needs or wants money, please come see me,” she added, to scattered laughter. But it was a point she meant in all seriousness. 

She explained that her office “does not do a great job of announcing to folks” that the state has many grant and loan programs available. She handed out resource guides and directed the audience to the website

“If you’re looking for manufacturing resources or solar or electric vehicles, please go there and it should have a pretty extensive list. So that’s what I do. I’m very happy in this job because I get to go around and talk about people’s money problems and where they need more money, and I’m able to kind of shake the trees a little bit, get things going and so I’m finally in a good place,” she added. 

Ma acknowledged longstanding relationships in Beverly Hills and has addressed the Rotary Club more than once. She addressed topics of local interest, ranging from affordable housing to public-private partnerships. Ma, who has announced her candidacy for lieutenant governor in 2026 (she is being termed out), also answered a diverse array of questions from the audience.

The first query came from Beverly Hills Police Chief Mark Stainbrook, and it was on the topic of finances. 

“Two years ago, I believe we had about a $97 billion surplus in the state, and we just announced a $44 billion deficit. How and why does that happen and what are you going to do about that as lieutenant governor?” Stainbrook inquired. 

Ma’s response looked back on the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“Miraculously, that first year, we had a $46 billion dollar surplus. Why? Well, sales taxes all stayed there. Everybody stayed, bought RVs, boats, cars and did not travel. Number two, the tech industry was doing extremely well. We needed to have a communication mode, so all the tech companies were coming out with a new Zoom and Google Meets and all that. Also, interest rates were low, so people were still buying and selling and had capital gains on homes. Home prices were still going up. And then the second year of COVID, we had a $96 billion surplus, same scenario, more IPOs, mergers and acquisitions, bonuses and stock options.”

She continued, “Now this recent fiscal year, we’re facing about a $50 billion deficit. Why? 

Number one, interest rates keep going up. So that has really slowed a lot of the capital gains and investments. Number two, we had writers and actors strike in Hollywood, which essentially shut everything down for a good nine months, and it’s not easy to turn on and off Hollywood, they’ve already made their contracts, they’re filming in other places, ancillary businesses have shut down. Number three, traditional tech companies have started laying off and therefore they’re not coming back to the city. Their revenues are down. And so that’s what happened,” she said. 

Ma noted that her role is to manage the money and make sure everything gets funded and financed. She doesn’t have a big role in the budget itself, but has used her office to effect change, nonetheless. 

“Because I am all over the state, I am trying to encourage more businesses to come to California, more investors to come. I give them tips on where they would be successful, what places they should go and locate, who wants certain types of industries, et cetera. And then AI is going to be the next tech boom. Whether you like AI or not, I personally love it. We need to make sure that Silicon Valley continues to flourish. As more AI companies come, the tech market sector will be booming again, but we need to have those high-paying jobs. It does not help if wealthy people move out of the state.”

She pointed to one region of Southern California as a key to deficit recovery: the Inland Empire. She described the region as a “shining light,” thanks to the train line set to run from Rancho Cucamonga to Las Vegas in 2.5 hours as well as the inland port in the works for Barstow. 

“So, the Inland Empire, I believe, is going to get us out of this deficit. We need to make sure we keep aerospace growing, AI and we have to get Hollywood back on track,” she added. 

Other topics Ma addressed included the impact that devastating fires in the state have had on the budget. 

“The major impact that it’s had is on insurance. The fact that insurance companies have pulled out of California, they’re not insuring, they’re charging three times what they used to  in terms of premiums. That is the devastating impact. We did put a lot of our surplus to fire mitigation more for OES and Cal Fire, et cetera, and we’re hoping that the utility companies are also going to do what they can to harden their infrastructure, but that’s always a fight,” said Ma. 

When asked about the topic of public service, Ma made this observation. 

“I’ve had over a thousand interns come through my office. I want the young people to know that public service should be a good thing. We should be helping the public. We should be approachable and accountable and transparent,” said Ma. 

She also gave a retort to the oft-repeated question, “Why can’t government be more like business?”

“When business is doing well, everybody’s doing well, making money, bonuses, stock options. Then when companies aren’t doing well, they lay people off. Sometimes they take away their retirement, and then the public sector has to be that safety net and pick up the pieces. So, we’re not the same, but we should be working hand in hand. And a lot of my programs are all public-private partnerships because I’m rolling out the tax credits and the bonds. I have to work with developers and banks and investors. We’re funding and financing everything,” she said. 

The discussion turned to a topic that has been particularly vexing to local officials throughout the state: housing. She used examples in the educational realm to make her point. 

“Tuition at UC Berkeley last year was like $17,000 and housing was $19,000. So, if we do not fix our housing crisis, we are not going to fix the high cost of education. It’s not the tuition. Our UC campuses are still top of the list in terms of public universities across the nation. People want to go but for the housing. That’s what I tell investors. If you want to invest, please go build housing—faculty and student housing—around our UC and CSU campuses. They will always be full.”

One of the last questions for Ma came from a real estate attorney who said that complicated application processes are driving his developer clients out of state. 

She responded with a plea. 

“I’m always asking groups like this to please run for office. We need more of you in office. We need more business owners, more accountants who are going to look at the reality of the situation. I distribute and oversee the bonds and tax credits for affordable housing. I know how difficult it is. Everything is more difficult at the local level. My office is the last step. I’ve made my office as efficient and flexible as possible. Unless the local governments start working more efficiently, we’re going to have a problem.”  

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