Carnegie Mellon University

Photo of Malia Cohen at a podium

October 13, 2023

Public Policy Pro

CMU alumna Malia Cohen helps keep California on sound financial footing as the state’s chief fiscal officer

By Jennifer Monahan

California’s economy is the fifth-largest in the world behind only the U.S., China, Japan and Germany, and Carnegie Mellon University alumna Malia Cohen is responsible for protecting and accounting its financial resources.

Elected as California State Controller in November 2022, the 2008 graduate of Heinz College of Information Systems and Public Policy with a master’s degree in public policy and management took office in January.

She serves on more than 70 boards and commissions, including the nation’s two largest public pension funds, which have a combined portfolio of $750 billion. Prior to her current role, Malia served on the California State Board of Equalization where she administered California’s $100 billion property tax system.

Heinz College caught up with Malia to get her take on how she is settling in to her new job, and how her career aspirations have led her to this role.

You took office in January. How have the first months of your role as state controller been?

It has been like drinking water from a fire hydrant. From the moment I was sworn in, I have been inundated with issues — some inherited from my predecessor involving much-needed technological changes to a variety of new problems associated with declining revenues. At the same time, I am determining who will be members of my executive team, positioning the office as a leader in financial reporting and re-establishing the office as a destination agency. These first several months have been an amazing and exciting time!

What are your top two or three responsibilities as state controller?

The duties of the state controller are vast and cover all aspects of decisions impacting revenues. So, it is difficult to narrow it down to two or three top responsibilities. That said, my primary responsibility is to ensure through auditing that the expenditures made by my office are legal and in proper amount. To that end, I am also responsible for auditing all state government departments and programs that spend state general funds as well as overseeing the spending of state dollars by local agencies. There are hundreds of billions of dollars allocated by the California legislature: That body decides who's going to get what, when and how much. The state controller’s office issues over $14.4 billion annually in payroll to more than 300,000 state employees. In addition, the controller issues California’s Annual Comprehensive Financial Report and monitors the cash flow of California’s general fund through monthly cash reports. To maintain fiscal controls, the controller sits on 70 different boards and commissions with authority ranging from affordable housing to crime victim compensation to land management. The Controller also chairs the California Franchise Tax Board and serves on the two largest pension funds in the world, CalPERS (California Public Employees’ Retirement System) and CalSTRS (California State Teachers Retirement System).

What motivated you to pursue a career in public office?

My motivation really started on a tour of San Francisco City Hall when I was 8 years old. Former U.S. Sen. Diane Feinstein was the mayor of San Francisco when I was in the third grade, and she talked about the importance of public service, how it was the best job she ever had and how perhaps someone in this class would like to run for office. That seed was planted in me, and I have been on that path ever since.

As chair of the California State Board of Equalization, you led the effort to modernize California’s property tax system and worked to stimulate affordable housing in California — a place known for a high cost of living and expensive housing. Can you tell us more about those efforts?

I served four years on the California Board of Equalization (BOE), which is a property tax agency responsible for ensuring that property is assessed fairly and accurately. What I learned at the BOE, actually relates to my time at Carnegie Mellon. We had to make sure that we were utilizing available technology to enhance people's lives.

The world shut down three years ago, and people were not able to get into the courthouse. They were not able to pay their property taxes in person. There were a lot of things that they were not able to do physically, so we relied on technology. We needed to make sure that the technology was robust, and it wasn’t robust enough.

It’s also about paying careful attention to the fact that not everyone speaks English as a first language. When I talk about modernization, I mean making sure that you're able to access the information in your native tongue. Technology allows us to do that.

The other thing that we did in terms of stimulating local, middle income — the “missing middle” as we call it — is looking at how we could use property tax abatements and exemptions as an incentive for developers to build housing that is missing. Let me explain: Developers will build luxurious housing because that will generate income. They will build low- to very-low-cost affordable housing because the state and federal governments will subsidize it. But that middle-income group of aspiring homeowners, for example, if you're working in a government job, in nursing or as an electrician, and you want to own a home, that’s the sector where we don't have enough housing supply. At the BOE, we explored using property tax abatements to make it attractive to developers to build housing that would be affordable to middle-income earners. We used techniques I learned when studying policy at CMU like benchmarking and looking at best practices. A lot of my policy background from Heinz College informs the work that I'm doing today.

How did you get interested in public policy?

I’ve been interested in public policy ever since high school. I'm a graduate from Fisk University, one of the nation's oldest universities, in Nashville, Tennessee. I studied political science there with a concentration of public administration. I've always known I wanted to run for a public office, so I looked for a degree that would marry my desires to be in public office and to serve. As I matured, I began to realize how policy — public policy as well as policies within businesses and nonprofits — impacts people's lives. That is where I wanted to spend my career, and that's where I spend my energy now.

How did your studies at CMU help prepare you for the work you’re doing now? Were there any particular faculty members who influenced you while you were at Heinz College, or lessons that have stayed with you?

Heinz College prepared me in a very full way. (James M. Walton Professor of Economics) Linda Babcock's course on how to negotiate has been incredibly important and valuable in my everyday life, whether I'm negotiating a budget or budget cuts, negotiating with constituents, or asking for financial support from donors. As part of my work now, I train other women in the ways of fundraising — that you must ask, and you cannot be afraid. I learned those principles from Linda Babcock.

(Retired Associate Dean and Professor of Professional Communications) Brenda Peyser taught a leadership management communication course, Business Acting, which was pivotal. Being able to speak on your feet, to do an interview, to be comfortable in an uncomfortable space, to communicate your vision, to understand that over 90% of communication is body language — which also matters in being able to communicate to people who don’t speak English or may be hearing or visually impaired — all of these are things I learned from this particular course, that I use every day.

Decision Making Under Uncertainty also lends itself to my daily job because I am making decisions, and often don't have all the information. I learned to ask the appropriate questions of my stakeholders to glean what I don't know. It was a challenging course, but it makes a lot of sense in my work today.

(Professor of Organizations and Public Policy) David Krackhardt’s course about influencers was critical to my success in getting elected to public office. Going into a neighborhood and understanding who the decision makers are, who the influencers are and how decisions are made was essential. Those insights also influence the budget process — understanding who's going to get what and how much. That's the professional world that I live in.

This interview was edited for length and clarity. Article republished from a Q&A with Heinz College of Information Systems and Public Policy.