Does Betty T. Yee have pot smokers to thank for being sworn in next week as California’s new State Controller, the state’s chief financial officer, replacing the termed-out John Chiang?
Yee, a tax and fiscal policy expert, won a spot in the November election when she edged out fellow Democrat and former Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez by 500 votes in the June primary after winning the endorsement of California NORML (National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws) for her spirited advocacy of medical pot. Yee went on to defeat Republican Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin, 53%-47%.
Of course, when you win by such a small margin, most any constituency could justifiably claim credit for victory. She also endeared herself to environmentalists with opposition to hydraulic fracturing (fracking) and support for alternative energy efforts. As State Controller, she has a seat on the State Lands Commission, which has a say in these matters.
In addition to being a central figure in budget negotiations, the controller dispenses and accounts for all of the state's payments, including employee wages, and audits state spending.
Yee was born in San Francisco in 1957, the year after her parents emigrated from China. She attended local schools and worked for the laundry business that was started, and owned for 30 years, by her parents.
Yee earned a Bachelor of Art’s degree in sociology from the University of California, Berkeley in 1979 and picked up a Master’s degree in public administration from Golden Gate University in 1981.
After college, Yee served as a Santa Cruz County public health commissioner from 1982 to 1986. She left for Sacramento after applying for and receiving a Senate fellowship through the Capital Fellows Program. From 1988 to 1998, Yee held senior staff positions for several fiscal and policy committees in both houses of the state Legislature.
Yee joined the executive branch of government in 1999 when the California’s Department of Finance hired her as chief deputy director for budget. She led the development of Democratic Governor Gray Davis’s budget, negotiating with lawmakers and key stakeholders, and analyzed fiscal legislation on behalf of the administration.
She joined the Board of Equalization in 2003 as chief deputy to Chairwoman Carole Migden. When Migden won election to the state Senate in 2004 and vacated the First District seat, Yee was appointed to take her place. She was elected to the board in 2006, representing 21 counties in Northern and Central California, including San Francisco. She was re-elected to the board in 2010 and was chairwoman twice during her tenure.
While on the board, she was a strong advocate for closing a loophole used by online retailers—Amazon was the biggest—to avoid paying state sales tax. Amazon fought California and other states, finally reaching agreement with the state in 2011. Two years later, the U.S. Supreme Court backed New York on its “Amazon tax.”
The board implements around 30 tax and revenue programs, including sales tax, the largest. They consider the applicability of taxes on new products, like medical marijuana. Because it is not an exempt prescription medication dispensed by a pharmacist, it is subject to tax.
Yee ran for controller after exceeding term limits for board members. Her predecessor, Chiang, ran for State Treasurer and won