What Do California's Constitutional Officers Actually Do?

In preparation for today’s Primary election in California – PSA: Don’t forget to vote – we are releasing a quick background of each of the Constitutional Officers and what they actually do in the California government.

Today, we are covering California’s Governor. Our current governor is Edmund G. Brown, known more commonly as Jerry Brown.

Most voters know about the Governor and some of the basic duties he or she has, however, there are some interesting lesser-known powers held by the Governor.

First, the Governor’s most well-known duty is signing into law bills passed by the California State Legislature. However, in contrast to the President of the United States, the California Governor has a pocket signature, meaning if the Governor fails to sign or veto a bill within the time allotted, the bill is passed and automatically becomes law without his or her signature. Conversely, the U.S. President has a pocket veto.

Obviously, the Governor has the power to veto bills passed by the California State Legislature. Vetoes can only be overruled by a two-thirds vote in both houses of the Legislature. He or she can also can also “line item veto” specific items within a bill or the state budget while leaving other items intact.

It is very rare that a Legislature will override the Governor’s veto. In California, “A veto override is a full-frontal assault on a governor’s authority, […] the political cost of taking on a governor usually far outweighs the policy gain that would come from overriding their veto,” said Thad Kousser, a political science professor at the University of California, San Diego. The last time the Legislature overruled a Governor’s veto was during Governor Brown’s first administration in 1979, where the Legislature overruled Governor Brown’s veto to give state workers a 14.5% pay hike.

The California Constitution allows for the Governor to assign and reorganize functions among executive officers and agencies and their employees, unless the executive officers are elected. The Governor is also granted the power to control the militia and pardon people facing conviction in California. Of course all of these powers are subject to statutory limitations made by the California Legislature.

The Governor must also report to the Legislature each calendar year on the condition of the State – known as the State of the State address – and may make recommendations on future legislation. These recommendations happen regularly, such as when Governor Brown spearheaded the campaigns for a Rainy Day Fund for the next economic recession in 2014.

Within the first 10 days of each calendar year, the Governor is legally required to submit a balanced budget to the Legislature. In turn, the Legislature is legally required to adopt a balanced budget by midnight on June 15 of each calendar year.

Molly Alcorn contributed to this post.

In preparation for California’s upcoming Primary election, we are releasing a quick background of each of the Constitutional Officers and what they actually do in the California government.

Today, we are covering California’s Lieutenant Governor, currently Gavin Newsom.

Former California Lieutenant Governor, and former California Governor Gray Davis, had this to say about the job, “There’s no denying that the official responsibilities of the lieutenant governor are more modest than some other constitutional offices – the English call it an ‘heir and a spare.’”

Similar to the Vice President of the United States, the Lieutenant Governor is President of the Senate but can only cast a vote to break a tie. This is an uncommon occurrence. The last two times it was used were in 1996 in favor of a Domestic Partners Registry over same-sex marriage and in 1975 in favor of legalizing certain previously outlawed adult intimate relations. Also, during an absence of a Governor such as absence from the state, death, resignation, or impeachment, the Lieutenant Governor will act as Governor.

The Lieutenant Governor also serves as the chair on several boards such as the three-member State Lands Commission, a rotating position with the State Controller, and the California Commission for Economic Development. He or she also sits on several boards, such as the University of California Board of Regents, California State University Board of Trustees, California Ocean Protection Council, and the California Emergency Council.

The Lieutenant Governor also has the implied power of the bully pulpit. So while the official duties of the LG are limited to Acting Governor when the Governor is absent and casting a tie breaking vote in the Senate, the LG can use their position to argue for their preferred policies. For example, Newsom authored the Report on the State of Higher Education in California in order to promote a new education policy. He also vocally supported the legalization of recreational marijuana in 2013.

However, even current Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom has joked about the irrelevance of the job, borrowing a joke from former Secretary of State John Kerry, describing the position as “Wake up every morning, pick up the paper, read the obituaries, and if the governor’s name doesn’t appear in there, go back to sleep.” Others agree with the sentiment. “With all due respect to that office, anybody who holds it has a fate almost worse than death,” said Larry Gerston, a political scientist at San Jose State.

Since the state’s birth in 1850, only two Lieutenant Governors have been elected governor. The remaining Lieutenant Governors who rose to Governor were due to an absence of an elected Governor. The last Lieutenant Governor elected to Governor, Gray Davis, was recalled and replaced by Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Molly Alcorn contributed to this post.

In preparation for California’s upcoming Primary election, we are releasing a quick background of each of the Constitutional Officers and what they actually do in the California government.

Today, we are covering the California Attorney General.

The current Attorney General is Xavier Becerra who was appointed by Governor Jerry Brown to finish the term of U.S. Senator Kamala Harris after her election to U.S. Senate in 2016.

The Attorney General is classified as the chief law officer of the State and is sometimes colloquially referred to as California’s “Top Cop.” The Attorney General is required to see that the laws of the State are uniformly and adequately enforced. They have direct supervision over every District Attorney, Sheriff, and other law enforcement officers. Whenever any law of the State is not being adequately enforced in any county, the Attorney General must prosecute any violations of law of which the superior court has jurisdiction, and in such cases the Attorney General shall have all the powers of a district attorney.

The Attorney General represents the People of California in civil and criminal matters before trial courts, appellate courts and the Supreme Courts of California and the United States. He or she also assists District Attorneys, local law enforcement and federal and international criminal justice agencies in the administration of justice.

It is also the duty of the Attorney General to manage programs and special projects to detect and crack down on fraudulent, unfair and illegal activities that victimize consumers or threaten public safety. A well-known example of this being Megan’s Law, which requires a publicly available registry of specified sex offenders.

The Attorney General, like the Secretary of State, is also involved in the State Ballot Measures.  Once a proposed initiative measure has been written, the proponents of the initiative must submit a draft of the proposed initiative measure to the Attorney General. He or she will then prepare a circulating title and summary of the main purpose and points of the proposed initiative measure as required by the California Elections Code § 9001(a). The Attorney General also initiates a public review process for the measures and submits the measure to the houses in the Legislature.

Molly Alcorn contributed to this post.

In preparation for California’s upcoming Primary election, we are releasing a quick background of each of the Constitutional Officers and what they actually do in the California government.

Today, we are covering California’s Secretary of State. California’s current Secretary of State is Alex Padilla, who was elected in 2014.

While some other Constitutional Officers have clear parallels at the Federal level, such as Governor and Lieutenant Governor, the California Secretary of State (SOS) has little similarity to the U.S. Secretary of State. The Federal Secretary of State is appointed, rather than elected, and is responsible for serving as the President’s principal adviser on U.S. foreign policy, conducting negotiations relating to U.S. foreign affairs, supervising the Foreign Service of the United States, and other foreign policy work. The California SOS has none of these powers. Their duties are solely related to the State of California.

As the chief elections officer, the California SOS tests and approves all voting equipment for security, accuracy, reliability and accessibility. The SOS also ensures election laws and campaign disclosure requirements are enforced. He or she also provides information to the public via voter information pamphlets on upcoming ballots and other elections within the state.

For example, Padilla championed the Power Search (and made it available in Spanish), which is a user-friendly search engine that accesses state-level campaign contributions ranging from 2001 to the present as reported to the SOS. Padilla also started the full online California Voter Registration system to increase voter registration through easy accessibility.

He or she is responsible for providing the public information on how to file a statewide ballot initiative. Upon request by the ballot initiative proponents, the SOS will review the measure with respect to form and language clarity and submit for a fiscal analysis. Once the measure is submitted to the SOS with signatures, the office will then review signatures to verify their validity. Once the signatures are determined valid, the SOS will notify the proponents and county elections official and submit as eligible for the ballot.

The SOS also registers businesses in the state and commissions notaries public. He or she also keeps the state’s key documents including the Constitution and Great Seal, and keeps the state archives.

The Business Programs Division of the SOS’s office registers and authenticates business entities and trademarks in California. Business must register within the state for tax purposes and other legal reasons. Trademarks, while registered in the United States Patent and Trademark Office, must be brought to the state government for review by attorneys and state officials for approval.

The Notary Public Section appoints and commissions eligible notaries public, who are state officers that certify and witness signatures on official documents. A notary public in California must go through training and registration through the Secretary of State’s office.

Molly Alcorn contributed to this post

In preparation for California’s upcoming Primary election, we are releasing a quick background on each of the Constitutional Officers and what they actually do in the California government.

Today, we are comparing and contrasting the powers of the two fiscally-oriented Constitutional Officers – California’s State Treasurer and State Controller.

The current State Treasurer is John Chiang (D), who was first elected to the position on November 4, 2014.

The Treasurer acts as the chief investment officer, banker and financier of the state government and is responsible for managing the state’s pooled money investment account (PMIA). He also sits on the boards of the state’s employee pension funds, such as CalPERS and CalSTRS.

The Public Employees’ Retirement System (CalPERS) and State Teachers’ Retirement System (CalSTRS) are significant investors/stockholders in the U.S. and global economies. The pension funds provide for the retirement of their members – state and local government employees and teachers, respectively – and also perform a variety of other services for them.

California’s PMIA is an investment account where the State Treasurer and the Pooled Money Investment Board, which the Treasurer chairs, invests California taxpayer money to fund the State budget cash flow.  At the end of April 2018, the PMIA portfolio totaled approximately $85.9 billion.

Similar to the Treasurer, the State Controller is also a fiscal officer for the California Government.

The State Controller acts as the state’s accountant, bookkeeper and auditor, tracking and controlling disbursement of state funds from the treasury. The areas of government audited and reviewed by the controller include school districts, the California State Lottery, oil and gas lease royalties, state agencies, and a multitude of local governments.

Similar to the Treasurer, the State Controller sits on the boards of both CalPERS and CalSTRS. However, unlike the State Treasurer and as mentioned in our first iteration of What Do the California Constitutional Officers Do, the State Controller is a member of the Board of Equalization.

The current State Controller is Betty Yee. She manages the outgoing money from the state funds and treasury. A common example of the Controller’s job is releasing money funds to workers employed by the State. As a matter of fact, Betty Yee’s name may be the most familiar for state employees because her name is on the checks issued to them in payroll.

It may seem at first that the differences between the Treasurer and the Controller are minimal. However, both have distinct roles in the State Government. The Treasurer is responsible for incoming and invested funds. The Controller manages the money leaving the treasury.

Molly Alcorn contributed to this post.

In preparation for California’s upcoming Primary election, we are releasing a quick background on each of the Constitutional Officers and what they actually do in the California government.

Today, we are reviewing California’s Insurance Commissioner.

The Insurance Commissioner’s office was created by California Statute in 1868 during the creation of the Insurance Department. However, in 1988, voters approved Proposition 103, now Insurance Code Section 12906, which changed the position of Insurance Commissioner from an official appointed by the Governor to an official elected by California’s voters.

Dave Jones is California’s current Insurance Commissioner. He was first elected to the position on November 2, 2010 and subsequently re-elected November 4, 2014. Having served two terms in the office, he will be termed out at the end of this year.

The Insurance Commissioner, and his or her department, oversees several insurance industries  ranging from health insurance to property insurance and workers compensation. It is the responsibility of the Insurance Commission and his or her office to enforce the insurance laws of California. Further, the Insurance Commissioner’s office has authority over how insurers and licensees conduct their business in California. Some examples of these powers are that the Commissioner, and his or her office, licenses insurance providers, approves all rate or premium increases, investigates consumer complaints and allegations of fraud, analyzes insurance policy issues, and supervises the financial well-being of insurance companies.  The department also publishes a variety of information for consumers, including insurance news, guides and legal information.

The Insurance Commissioner has influence within the current policy debates in California, especially in healthcare, however said influence is not limited to the healthcare industry. In the beginning of May 2018, Commissioner Jones approved the first coverage to protect property owners leasing to the recently legalized recreational cannabis industry.

Molly Alcorn contributed to this post.

In preparation for the upcoming Primary Election on June 5, we are releasing a quick background of each of the Constitutional Officers and what they actually do in the California government.

Today, we are reviewing the State Superintendent of Public Instruction (SPI).

The SPI oversees the California Department of Education (CDE) and, by extension, all of the state of California’s public schools. The superintendent also manages the operational side of the school system such as overseeing the licensing of teachers, maintaining school property, and fulfilling other administrative duties. This authority is given by the California Constitution as well as the California Education Code.

The current State Superintendent is Tom Torlakson who was elected in 2010, and is termed out this year. SPI is the only non-partisan Constitutional Officer. She or he is also the executive officer and Secretary for the State Board of Education. The SPI’s position requires that they execute, under direction of the State Board of Education, the policies which have been decided upon by the board. The SPI also prescribes regulations under which arrangements with federal government for funds made available to schools. The SPI is the only officer with the authority to direct those regulations.


The SPI’s other duties include:

  • Prepare and furnish to teachers and to all officers charged with the administration of the laws relating to the public schools the blank forms and books necessary to the discharge of their duties.
  • Authenticate with his or her official seal all drafts or orders and all papers and writings issued from his or her office.
  • Bind all valuable school reports, journals, and documents in his or her office, or received by him or her.
  • Designate and appoint, or terminate the designation and appointment of, any officer or employee of the department to have the powers and liabilities of a deputy.
  • Annually inform the governing boards of school districts of the provisions of Section 60510.5 regulating donation of obsolete materials.

While the Superintendent has many duties, the State Board of Education directs the implementation of policies that directly affect the education system within California.

The State Board of Education’s (SBE) President is Dr. Michael Kirst, who was appointed in 2011 by Governor Brown. By statute, the SBE is the governing and policy-making body of the CDE. Under the California Education Code, the SBE adopts rules and regulations in regards to primary and secondary schools as well as Universities and Colleges within the state. The Board also determines various needs within the education system and suggests resolutions in regards to those needs. As stated earlier, the Superintendent must execute these policies and regulations to the Department of Education and the California Public School system.

The Superintendent has the implied power of the bully pulpit. So while the official duties of the SPI are limited to executing policies set by the SBE, the SPI can use their position as a statewide elected official to argue for their preferred education policies. For example, Torlakson pushed for Common Core standards across California, resulting in its implementation. Another example is Torlakson’s predecessor, Jack O’Connell, who focused on closing the achievement gap in California’s public schools.

Molly Alcorn contributed to this post.

There are eight statewide Constitutional Officers: the Governor, Lieutenant Governor, Secretary of State, Attorney General, State Controller, State Treasurer, Insurance Commissioner and the State Superintendent of Public Instruction. These officers are all elected at the same time in a General Election and may be re-elected to a maximum of two four-year terms.

In preparation for the upcoming election, we are releasing a quick background of each of the Constitutional Officers and what they actually do in the California government.

To begin, we start with the California Board of Equalization (BOE).

The State BOE was created in 1879 under the California Constitution in Article V, Section 14 (f) and Article XIII Section 17. To equalize, in the legal definition, means to balance. Hence, the BOE was charged with responsibility for ensuring that county property tax assessment practices were equal, balanced, and uniform throughout the state. The Board does not have power or the responsibility to adjust taxes directly, just to assess their practices. The Board consists of five members, four of whom represent districts, and the State Controller. The four districts are subject to redistricting every ten years under the California Citizens Redistricting Commission.  

The current members of the State BOE, and their districts, are:

  • Betty Yee (D) – State Controller
  • George Runner (R), First District – Counties of Alpine, Amador, Butte, Calaveras, El Dorado, Fresno, Inyo, Kern, Kings, Lassen, Madera, Mariposa, Merced, Modoc, Mono, Nevada, Placer, Plumas, Sacramento, San Bernardino, San Joaquin, Shasta, Sierra, Siskiyou, Stanislaus, Sutter, Tuolumne, Tulare, Yuba, and portions of Los Angeles.
  • Fiona Ma (D), Second District – Counties of Alameda, Contra Costa, Colusa, Del Norte, Glenn, Humboldt, Lake, Marin, Mendocino, Monterey, Napa, San Benito, San Francisco, San Luis Obispo, San Mateo, Santa Barbara, Santa Clara, Santa Cruz, Solano, Sonoma, Tehama, Trinity, and Yolo.
  • Jerome Horton (D), Third District – Counties of Los Angeles and Ventura and a portion of San Bernardino County.
  • Diane Harkey (R), Fourth District – Counties of Imperial, Orange, Riverside, San Diego, and a portion of San Bernardino County.

The BOE was responsible for administering various state and county taxes, hearing tax appeals, and overseeing county property tax assessments. However, in 2017, the Board was stripped of its powers under AB 131, now California Government Code 15600(d)(2). The provision strips powers in regards to:

  • Conducting a tax practices appeals hearing
  • Making a determination or publishing a decision on an appeal
  • Taking any other action with respect to an appeal heard after January 1, 2018

Those powers were redirected to the Office of Tax Appeals.

The BOE now has following responsibilities under California Gov Code Sec. 15600(b):

  • The review, equalization, or adjustment of a property tax assessment
  • The review or measurement of county assessment levels
  • The tax practices assessment of water storage transportation lying within two or more counties and property
  • The assessment of taxes on insurers
  • The assessment and collection of taxes on the manufacture, importation, and sale of alcoholic beverages
  • The duty to adjust the rate of the motor vehicle fuel tax through the 2018–19 fiscal year

The BOE made waves over the new fuel tax by openly opposing the increase in tax earlier this year. While they do not have a direct power to deny the tax, the BOE turned down the recommendation to increase taxes, which raised controversy over the validity of the necessity to increase those taxes.

Molly Alcorn also contributed to this post.