Anna Caballero rides herd on $9 billion agency

Former Assemblywoman Anna Caballero presides over the State and Consumer Services Agency, whose disparate components include the Department of Fair Employment and Housing, the Franchise Tax Board, the Building Standards Commission and the Victim Compensation Government Claims Board.

Through the Department of General Services, Caballero’s agency also procures nearly $9 billion worth of goods and services. Management of the state’s pension funds also falls under her jurisdiction.

The Department of Consumer Affairs licenses 2.4 million Californians in more than 255 professions including accountants, auto mechanics, contractors, doctors, nurses and podiatrists.

A lawyer and grandmother of four, Caballero was a member of the Salinas City Council for 15 years. She talks with Capitol Weekly about what’s ahead for her agency, which includes improving how the state interacts with consumers and licensees through the Internet.

Where do most Californians intersect with your agency?
At least two obvious places. One is the Franchise Tax Board. You just can’t get away from the fact you have to pay your taxes. It’s one of the inevitables. Two is at the Department of Consumer Affairs. That’s less intuitive but I think people take for granted that when they go to a doctor that doctor is qualified and licensed to treat what they’re going in for. Or when they take their vehicle in to be serviced that they’re going to get an estimate and that particular individual is licensed as well. We have all of these protections in there that we just take for granted but it really impacts our life tremendously.

I used to tell a joke about the FTB. My husband always says you have to tell a joke when you’re giving a speech. I struggle. I’m terrible with jokes. I used to say, “We ordered all the doors closed because I got a list from the FTB of everybody who hasn’t paid their taxes and were going to close the doors and shake you down and make sure we get your money.” It went right over most people’s heads. If I’d have said IRS, people would have known. Nobody really knows what the FTB really does. The IRS has this reputation for coming after your first-born. The FTB is much subtler, below the radar screen, so I stopped doing the joke.

How come you’ve got the FTB and not the Board of Equalization?
The agency is a really diverse set of departments; departments that don’t seem to go together in any logical fashion. The Board of Equalization actually is independent but so are the pension funds which are in the agency. Same with the Personnel Board. They all have their own boards that make their decisions. So I’m not exactly sure why the Board of Equalization is separate but there it is.

We’re not going to sell any state buildings in the near future like the last administration wanted to?
Not that I know of. I think we’re done with that.

When the governor asked you to come over here, what did he say he wanted you to do?
The main message was we expect you to manage and we won’t micromanage. Just get it done. On a broader scale, because the Department of General Services is in the agency there was an emphasis on efficiencies. Look for ways to be able to save the state money and General Services is a control agency so in many areas it has the ability to say that’s going to cost a little too much and you can’t do this or you can’t do that. That power has been used less in the past. So part of what we’ve been looking at is where might it be good for the department to step in, like giving good advice to the governor on how we manage our state properties.

The governor seems reluctant to expand the state’s involvement in the kind of licensing the Department of Consumer Affairs does. There’s a veto message from 35 years ago where he says he doesn’t want the state to get into the business of regulating marriage counselors, for example.

It wasn’t something we knew. Maybe we should have read some of those veto messages.  But I did have a couple conversations where the governor said he doesn’t like continuing education and some other licensing issues. He was very clear about not being interested in supporting things that are pressures on retirement programs.

All these boards and commissions regulating professionals have as their main purpose policing the licensees but there’s an education component, too. Should more be done to educate?
Yes. The challenge and their primary focus is to license and to make sure the licensees are living up to the educational requirements and that they’re operating in a way that is good for the consumer. Part of their mission is education but when there are scarce resources, education tends to be the one area that you can cut where you’re not impacting your mission’s critical activities.

So if the resources are scant why don’t they just charge more for a license?
That’s where they have to go if they need resources. The challenge right now is that their funds, the special funds in the Department of Consumer Affairs, have been decimated in past budgets. They’ve been borrowed. So there’s no way you can go out and increase fees when the general fund owes you money.

You’re precluded from doing it or you just can’t justify it?
That’s pretty hard to justify.

Is there some timetable for when the money comes back?
That’s the million-dollar question.

Given the fiscal restraints you’re describing, what’s on your agenda for next year?
What we’re looking at are efficiencies. Ways to be able to do business more efficiently and developing a more customer service-oriented culture recognizing that people want to know how government works and how to get information and make complaints if necessary. A big part of what we’re trying to do is get information out.

A lot of people have no clue what government does so it’s real easy to say “cut government” because they don’t know what protections there are out there. So if we’re not telling them what the Bureau of Automotive Repair does and why it’s important, then they take that for granted that their vehicle is going to be treated appropriately when they take it  in. What we want to do is get the good news out in terms of here are the things the state does to protect you. But consumers also need to access the information through the Internet. You’re a small business who wants to contract with the state, what do you need to do ? The hard part is we don’t have money for outreach like we should. So we’ve got to be creative about how we do it.

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