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California State Capitol. (Photo: Kevin Sanders for California Globe)

What is the Role of the State Controller of California?

The State Controller is the chief fiscal officer of California, the fifth largest economy in the world

By Chris Micheli, November 8, 2021 2:19 am

The State Controller is the chief fiscal officer of California, the fifth largest economy in the world. The Controller is responsible for accountability and disbursement of the state’s financial resources and conducts independent audits of government agencies that spend state funds. The Controller also administers the payroll system for state government employees and serves on 70 boards and commissions.

There have been a number of appellate court decisions that have determined the scope of the Controller’s duties and authority in state government. For example, with respect to the Controller, as with other state officers, the state Constitution follows a minimalist approach. The California Constitution provides for the office but primarily leaves it to the Legislature to define the duties and functions of the Controller.

The Legislature has wide discretion in defining the duties and functions of the office. The Controller’s basic duty to audit claims for correctness, legality, and for sufficient provisions of law for payment may encompass both ministerial and discretionary action. Although in some circumstances the Controller may have discretionary duties, the greater part of the duties devolved upon the position by the law are of a ministerial character. Gilb v. Chiang (2010) 186 Cal.App. 4th 444, review denied

In addition, the approval by the Governor and the Director of Finance of a claim of a state officer or employee for the expense of traveling outside the state raises a “prima facie” presumption that the claim is valid, but the presumption may be rebutted, and the earlier approval is not binding on the Controller so as to require payment of the claim without an audit by the Controller. Madden v. Riley (1942) 53 Cal.App. 2nd 814

As a result of a significant political battle and resulting appellate court case, the Controller may not withhold legislators’ salaries on the basis that a budget bill that the Legislature had designated as “balanced” is not in fact balanced under the state Constitutional provision stating that legislators forfeit their salaries during the period that a balanced budget bill is past due because such an audit is not within the Controller’s statutory power to determine the lawfulness of a disbursement of state money.

Instead, the Controller’s responsibility for determining the lawfulness of any disbursement of state money is primarily a ministerial function in which the Controller is not authorized to review and approve or reject an agency’s approval of a disbursement if it is within the scope of the legislative grant of discretion to the agency. The Controller’s limited discretionary function involves the determination of whether the factual circumstances of the claim comes within the scope of the agency’s approval. Where a department or agency acts within the authority delegated to it by the Legislature, the Controller must defer to the agency or department and leave the review of the lawfulness of the decision to the courts or the Legislature. Steinberg v. Chiang (2014) 223 Cal.App. 4th 338

Nonetheless, the state Controller has the ability in other instances to ensure compliance with the law under its jurisdiction. For example, the court of appeal ruled that the Controller had standing in an action for declaratory and injunctive relief to challenge the authority of the Board of Administration for the California Public Employees Retirement System to exempt its portfolio managers from civil service.

The statute provided the Controller, as the head of a state department, with the authority to prosecute actions concerning matters related to business activities and subjects under the department’s jurisdiction, and the Board’ actions constituted an attempt to bypass the Controller’s authority to issue warrants and audit and pay state employees through a uniform payroll system. Westly v. California Public Employees’ Retirement System Board of Administration (2003) 105 Cal.App. 4th 1095, review denied

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2 thoughts on “What is the Role of the State Controller of California?

  1. Why has the California Controller, Betty Yee, not complied with providing info on expenditures to ‘Open the Books’?
    California has a right to know. Is it Betty Yee, Controller, or Keely Bosler, Dir of Finance, who has allowed CalPers to invest $450mil in China’s Belt and Road?, with companies on the Fed watchlist? Who prosecutes when the actions in finance are corrupt, AG Bonta?

  2. From Hiram Johnson’s First Inagural discussing the New California Constitution:

    “Were these various officials appointed by the Governor, the chief officer of the State could surround himself with a cabinet like the cabinet of the Chief Executive of the nation, and a more compact, perhaps more centralized and possibly a more efficient government, established. I would leave the Controller an elective officer because, theoretically at least, the Controller is a check upon the other officials of the State, and thus should be independent. Were these suggestions carried out, the State ballot would consist of a Governor, Lieutenant Governor, Controller, members of the judiciary, and members of the Legislature. Of course, any change we might make as herein suggested could not operate upon officials now in office or during any of our terms. “

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