Fiona Ma Tells SF Weekly What the State Assembly Taught Her About California
Over six years in the California state Assembly, Fiona Ma, who represents San Francisco's western half, quickly worked her way to Majority Whip and then to Speaker Pro Tem. During that span, she passed bills that made California the first state to ban phthalates (a toxic chemical) from baby products, regulated tattoo parlors, and allowed incarcerated women who committed their crime against an abusive partner to petition for freedom.
SFW: Not many elected officials come into office with the aspiration to balance the budget. Most have grand dreams of all the proposals they want to push through. But what you do is limited by when you come into office. How were you able to reconcile the aspirations you had coming into office with the realities of the problems you had to deal with?
Ma: I tell people that I didn't get elected to make cuts to the programs. Being on the Board of Supervisors for four years [2002-2006], we had difficult times, but we had a budget analyst who would advise us on where there was waste or duplication. At the state level it's a little more difficult to figure that out.
SFW: Why is that?
Ma: Because you're asking departments to self-report, which they're not going to do. We don't have the mechanisms in place to hire an auditor to go in and make sure that agencies are as efficient as possible. There's so much that happens in government, in terms of agencies and people and programs and relationships to the federal government and local government.
I think I know a little bit about most of the agencies, but I still don't know about every agency. Unless you deal with it on a daily basis, unless you're a chair of the water committee or the parks committee, it's a lot. So we learn to be generalists. In six years, we're just not going to be experts at anything, so I decided that I wanted to know as much as possible. So, I think I've been on 17 committees. For me, you learn on the sub-committees, so I believe changing committees is really where I learn the substance of what's going on in terms of bills and issues.
SFW: What is the difference between governance at the local level and at the state level -- something you might not have known when you first arrived in Sacramento?
Ma: Local level is very hands-on. It's very grassroots. It's understanding who your constituents are, being accessible and really trying to fix the problems. When you get to the state level, now you're dealing with a larger population. I'm also expected to vote on issues affecting 40 million people. Meetings are not just my constituents -- people come from all over.
That's different, in terms of being able to look at a bigger picture versus micromanaging. Whereas before I used to be able to call [the Department of Public Works] and say, "Where is my garbage can?" and follow up, and I know who to call, know it's gonna get done, I can keep following up, and it's gonna get done. You can't really do that at the state level.
SFW: One tangle a lot of states have gotten into right now is this kind of "race to the bottom," where everybody's trying to undercut everyone else and it's all about who can offer the most tax breaks, or other incentives, to businesses. How do you see this playing out over the years? How can a state make this process work without just giving a company whatever it wants?
Ma: I think that that is what's happening, right. There are some states that are more aggressive in attracting businesses. I think each state needs to figure out what their focus is gonna be and what their priority is gonna be. We can't be the capital of every industry, so what is it that California wants to see? What is our priority? And we haven't done that as a state. We don't have a five-year plan. We deal with issues on an emergency basis.
SFW: What should our priorities be?
Ma: Tech. Biotech, high-tech, nano-tech. Silicon Valley is very well-reselected. The companies that are here want to stay here. They understand that education is important. Being close to the West is very important for global businesses now. So that should be a priority.
Agriculture. I personally like to know that my food is grown here because I know that it's the freshest and it's the safest. I can't guarantee that food imported from South America, or Mexico, or China, or India is gonna have the same high standards.
We need to make sure we maintain high-quality educational institutions. Kids now who are graduating high school, some of them don't even have a fifth-grade reading level. That is unacceptable for California. While we keep cutting the budgets, kids don't feel like there's a job out there, they don't feel like there is any hope. We need to refocus on making our education system the best that we can make it.
SFW: With our state's budget crisis, some red states might see California as an example of the dangers of big-government liberalism -- of growing a public sector too expansive and expensive, with huge pensions for government employees. What does California say in response to that?
Ma: Our defense would be, we have cleaner air than other states. We have higher regulations. That means our water is probably cleaner. We can drink out of the tap. We can still swim in out oceans. We can eat our food right out of the ground. That's our defense.
We're the most diverse. Where everybody has an opportunity, and not everybody feels like that in some of these red states perhaps.
SFW: Anything you wish you could alter about the state?
Ma: I personally have an issue with the initiative process. Even though California is the most progressive -- anyone with a million dollars can get signatures and put it on the ballot. If there was ways to make it more accountable -- initiatives don't have to be reviewed by the Attorney General for legal correctness, it doesn't have to pass the legislature to make sure that we can afford it. Anyone can put it on. And that's why we continue to have problems.
A lot of people always ask, "Why do we spend more on prisons than schools?" I say, "Did you vote for three strikes? Did you vote for Megan's Law? Did you vote for Chelsea's Law? There's a human trafficking law on the November ballot, are you gonna vote for that?" Every time we vote for that, it means that's a priority, and more money gets shifted from the general fund and all the programs that we have. And that's been the problem.
If you're gonna put an initiative on the ballot, and it costs money, you need to find a funding source. That will continue to be California's Achilles heel. And until we figure out how to make it more accountable to the programs that we have, the budget, whether we can afford it, it's gonna continue to bring us down.