Fiona Ma is the California State Assembly Majority Whip and has been representing California's 12th Assembly District, which includes western San Francisco and parts of northern San Mateo County, since 2007. From 2002 to 2006 she was a member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors representing San Francisco's Sunset District. Prior to her election to this position, she was the part-time district representative for State Senator John Burton with a regular job as a CPA. Despite being a freshman in the Assembly she was appointed to the Majority Whip position by then Speaker of the State Assembly Fabian Núñez in recognition of her strength as a fundraiser and as one of the outstanding politicians of the Democratic Party in California.
What do you do as the majority whip in the State Legislature? What are the challenges and rewards of the job?
As majority whip I help make sure the Democratic caucus members are on the floor and ready to vote on bills that are important to the Democratic caucus. One challenge is meeting the needs of every member. In that challenge comes a great reward; working with so many different kinds of personalities helps me be a better person.
Many people I've talked to want to ask you about education, education, education. They refer back to a golden age of California public education when we led the nation in per pupil spending and ranking. Why aren't we there today and what are you and the state government trying to do about it to bring us back there? Also, why is California spending increasing amounts of money on prisons while cutting back on education when crime is clearly linked to a lack of education?
As our state grows, so too does the need for resources. As a strong believer in the public education system I support fully funding public education. Ideally, our teachers would be better paid, we would have more teachers, the goals of the Master Plan would be achieved by ensuring every student would have a guaranteed spot in higher education that is fully funded and paid for. But as we have seen in recent years, there has been a revenue problem. I support looking at ways to gain additional revenue such as closing tax loopholes and taking a look at possibly reforming Proposition 13 so homeowners are protected from increasing property taxes but ensure that businesses are paying their fare share. As a CPA, I understand the bottom line. Democrats want to be able to have more per pupil spending, and we understand that no one wants more taxes. But in order to maintain California's economy and improve educational outcomes, we need to do more for our children.
Many voters say they want better education or more prisons but are the same voters that say they don't want to pay higher taxes. How do you reconcile the contradictory expectations of the voters with the state's financial situation?
Sadly not everyone can have their wants met, especially when it comes to these hard pressing issues. In a perfect world there would be no taxes, no prisons and an education system that rises above the rest. Many voters understand that there is a price that needs to be paid in order to provide essential services including ensuring public safety and providing a first class education to our state's children. Just last week a group of wealthy Californians signed a letter to Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and the legislative leaders volunteering to be taxed at a higher rate to balance the budget. The legislature faces a budget that contains a $15 billion shortfall.
One of the issues that you're working on is getting the financing together to build a high-speed railway across California. Why spend billions on that when there are so many other things that California needs?
I've become convinced that reliable, fast, clean trains can replace single user auto trips. We can't be last in the world when climate change is such a global problem that requires all of our commitment. An investment in high speed rail will improve the quality of life for all Californians. High speed trains will take cars off the road, alleviate congestion at the airports, provide over 100,000 new construction and permanent jobs, and significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions. California is light years behind the rest of the world. Japan has had high-speed trains for over 40 years and France for over 25 years. Other countries with high speed trains include: China, Russia, Germany, Italy, South Korea, And even Turkey is developing a system that is close to completion. Funding for the system in California will be split 1/3 by the state, 1/3 by the federal government, and 1/3 through private financing. High-speed rail will generate revenue and easily pay for itself. It will help California meet our ambitious greenhouse gas emission goals and improve everyone's quality of life.
Another issue that you've been working on is banning lead from toys, especially those imported from China that has made the news lately. A friend of mine recommends toys featured on NBC's "Today Show" and while she supports your efforts said that testing and enforcement would be a logistical and financial nightmare; you'd either end up with empty store shelves at Christmas or fewer but more expensive toys depending on how long a grace period the toy industry was given to absorb the legislation's impact. How would you respond?
Last year I authored AB 1108 to make California the first state in the country to ban the chemical-phthalates in toys. Phthalates interfere with the hormone system and have been linked to reproductive defects, premature birth, and the early onset of puberty, which is a cause of breast cancer. I am happy to report that Congress recently passed legislation to ban the chemical from toys at the federal level. Many of the large retailers have already agreed to remove toys and the European Union and 13 other countries have already banned phthalates.
Safe alternatives exist and many companies have been producing phthalate free products for years, so the new federal ban should have little to no impact on the price or selection of toys on store shelves.
What are Asian American politicians doing to ally with the growing Latino majority in the state?
As a member of the API legislative caucus, I work closely with the Latino caucus on issues of mutual concern. I have authored legislation to halt human trafficking and to provide paid sick days to all California workers. These are two issues that I believe have major impacts on both communities.
What are some of the measures that you've authored or are currently supporting that directly helps Asian Americans?
For the last year, I've worked in San Francisco to make people aware of the impact of hepatitis B in California's diverse communities, especially among Asian Americans. Through the Hep B Free campaign, we've tested thousands of San Franciscans, provided vaccination and treatment information, and formed a network of groups committed to ending hepatitis B. However, there are people who are learning they have chronic hepatitis B, but who lack health insurance. Current law makes them wait until they are disabled to get help. This year I authored AB158, which would expand Medi-Cal benefits to non-disabled people diagnosed with chronic hepatitis B. Approximately 280,000 Californians are infected with chronic hepatitis B. People with chronic hepatitis B have a higher risk of developing cirrhosis of the liver or liver cancer. Early treatment of hepatitis B can reduce the risk of progression to liver disease and liver cancer. Current law makes uninsured Californians wait until they are disabled to get Medi-Cal assistance. AB 158 recognizes the cost savings of early treatment.
Oftentimes smaller Asian American and Pacific American communities in California with their own unique community problems are forgotten when seen against the much larger populations of Chinese and Japanese Americans. Have you authored or are supporting any legislation specifically designed to help forgotten communities such as the Samoans, Tongans, Cambodians, and Hmong?
This year I authored AB 3084 which encourages social studies instruction on World War II to include instruction on the role of Filipinos in that war and accurate history of the contributions of the Filipino American veterans. The bill encourages the instruction to include a component drawn from personal testimony, especially in the form of oral or video histories of Filipinos who were involved in World War II and those men and women who contributed to the war effort on the home front.
Voters oftentimes wish for "bipartisanship" but most of politics, especially in California, appears to be an endless recitation of what is wrong with the other party. Is there anything you can say that is complimentary of the Republicans? How can politicians work together in Sacramento to achieve bipartisanship as some readers might add, "without killing each other?"
Republicans are elected, just like Democrats, to represent their constituents, and for the most part I believe many of my Republican colleagues represent their districts accordingly. I work closely with my Republican colleagues on issues where we are able to agree. I have co-authored a number of Republican bills and vice-versa. I believe that it's important to reach out to the other side of the aisle in order to help bring positive change to the state. During my first year, I was able to get 7 of the 8 bills that were sent to the Republican Governor's desk signed, and I hope to have a similar track in years to come.
Do term limits have an effect on the relationships between legislators?
Whenever people are limited in their time together, relationships are affected. Many members in the Assembly are freshman, so we were all on a learning curve. I was fortunate enough to work for Senator John Burton for seven years, which helped me to have a leg up when I came to Sacramento. While it's sometimes difficult to develop lasting relationships because there is a new class of legislators coming in every two years, I have made it a priority to reach out and get to know my colleagues before they are sworn in so when the transition happens there is an existing relationship. I was a supporter of the recent initiative to modify term limits to bring more stability to the two legislative houses by allowing members to serve all their service time in either house.
Everyone always asks about the problems of the state. What are we doing right in California?
California is a leader on many issues. For example, my toxic toys bill was a first in the nation law that was used as a model for the federal legislation that was passed by Congress. I am hopeful that California will shortly become the first state in the nation to have high-speed trains. The state is moving forward with creating a more unified community in which basic rights are being afforded to everyone. While being involved with the budget, I've learned how important it is to protect essential services that many in the state rely on and I believe the final budget will make minimal cuts to education, public safety and health care.
What are your personal ambitions for the future? Any interest in running for governor or other statewide office?
For now, I'm focusing on what I can do with the position I am currently in, and on getting this budget done. In regards to possible future plans, I am taking everything one step at a time. I have enjoyed serving in the Legislature as the Majority Whip representing San Francisco.