It’s always interesting to hear the journey of someone called into public service. Often times, it’s a bumpy road, filled with swarthy opponents or natural disasters. For Chairwoman Fiona Ma, CPA, from the State Board of Equalization (SBOE), the biggest challenge she had to overcome was convincing her Mother and Father that being an elected official was NOT a waste of her accounting degree.
Growing up as a the daughter of immigrant parents, who moved to the U.S. from China, Ms. Ma was told at an early age that she could be one of four things: a doctor, a lawyer, an engineer, or an accountant. Since math caught her attention the most, and seeing blood made her swoon, her parents decided that she would become an accountant, no ifs, ands, or buts.
Although she was successful in her career at one of the top accounting firms, Ms. Ma said, “I saw the glass ceiling, left, and started my own practice at 28 years old.” This move set her on a path destined for public service.
Service was a calling for her as her grandfather was a very active pastor in his church and she herself was a Brownie and Girl Scout. As Ms. Ma noted, “You get rewarded for badges, not money. So it was doing good deeds that mattered, not getting rewarded for them with money. Growing up, money was never my motivating force. I think a lot Rotarians share that view through its motto of Service Above Self.”
After starting her own firm, she quickly became involved in local politics, first becoming the president of a business association, and then answering the call “to get our people to the table, run our own people, get appointments, and get involved.”
As Ms. Ma recalls, “I went home to my parents and told them I wanted to get more involved in politics. I didn’t think my lot in life was to sit in an office 16 hours a day doing people’s taxes. That, to me, was not very satisfying. As you can imagine, my parents pleaded with me not to embarrass them. That being an accountant was an honorable profession and that I should stick with it.”
Then, after working part-time for a senator, getting appointed to the San Francisco Assessment Appeals Board, and becoming more involved in other campaigns, Ms. Ma ran for the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 2002. “In hindsight, things always happy for a reason. Even though my parents didn’t want me to run office when I wanted to, when I was able to run for the Board, I was hungry, I was ready, and I worked harder than the seven other candidates because going back to being an accountant was not an option for me.”
After spending four years in a tough Survivor-like atmosphere, Ms. Ma decided to run for State Assembly, in which she won her race. She first served as the Majority Whip and then became the first Asian-American woman to serve as Speaker pro Tempore since 1850. “For those of you who play team sports, the legislature is all about the team. Everyone picks up after each other…If you like individual sports, stay at the local level.” In her last two years as Speaker, Ms. Ma passed more than 60 bills, some of which were first in the nation.
Facing term limits and still lacking the desire to go back to account, Ms. Ma decided to run for the SBOE, which is the only elected tax board in the U.S. Chairwoman Ma, representing the second district, became the first woman and only the second CPA to serve on the SBOE since its founding in 1879. With income taxes being handled by the Franchise Tax Board, the small, but mighty SBOE deals with all other tax and fee programs in the state. Representing nearly 10 million people across 23 counties, the SBOE oversee the collection of nearly $60 billion, about 40 percent of the state’s revenue.
Lest you think this is a boring place to be, Ms. Ma said “Everybody in the state has some sort of tax issue, so it’s not that boring.” Some of the most interesting issues being considered now are how to tax cannabis – the largest underground economy in the state, what is considered a rocket ship and how should it be taxed, and which products should be taxes, including both baby and adult diapers and feminine hygiene products.
With her position at the SBOE keeping her engaged in public service and her parents happy that she is not wasting her education, Chairwoman Ma continues to serve those she represents with a passion and vigor that has driven her all her life.