Where’s the State’s Money?

Arizona Treasurer Kimberly Yee Knows

by Ray Newton

As one of the state’s top six elected constitutional officers, Arizona Treasurer Kimberly Yee oversees cash management of the $40 billion state budget. That entails making certain payments are directed to the correct state agencies, local governments and schools. 

Beyond that, the office of the Arizona State Treasurer operates four local government investment pools that handle funds from the various cities, towns, counties and multiple government agencies. Tack onto that the responsibility of supervising management of $19 billion in state assets.

She shared many of her experiences with Prescott LIVING during an interview in August. 

Yee is the first Asian-American to be elected to statewide office in Arizona, as well as the first Asian-American woman elected to the Legislature. 

 A native of Phoenix, she graduated from Pepperdine University in Malibu, California, where she majored in English and political science before earning a master’s degree. Following graduation, she accepted a fellowship to work during in the mid-1990s in the administration of Gov. Pete Wilson. Her responsibility: to learn more about improving public education. Her reason for choosing that emphasis, she said, was because her mother had been a 38-year public school teacher in Phoenix.

“I learned a great deal about how important it is to give children the opportunity to begin learning at an early level. Schools should not be for babysitting or child care. Children need experiences that stimulate brain development,” she said.

Yee returned to Arizona for five years, where she worked for the Senate Education Committee. However, when Arnold Schwarzenegger was elected as governor in California, Yee returned to Sacramento to become his deputy cabinet secretary. 

“Leaders there were trying to reform a bloated government. There was a lot of duplication, and they really needed to bring their financial house into some kind of order,” she recalls.

Soon after, a strong tug was pulling her back to Arizona. A friend of hers, former Sen. Dean Martin, had been elected state treasurer, and he asked Yee to return to help him. She did.

“Working in that office just as the financial crisis of 2008 was happening — an incredible experience. We saw quickly how much money was coming in and how much was going out. It didn’t take us long to figure that the volume of incoming money was not the same as that going out the door because of big government spending.”

She continued, “The real message I learned when I worked for Treasurer Martin was this: Keep your financial house in order. Don’t spend more than you make. That’s a simple message, and we learn it in our own households. But sometimes, government forgets that lesson because the leaders forget it is not their money, it’s taxpayer money.” 

Yee said she was also influenced by a longtime state legislator, Linda Gray, who had served 16 years in the Arizona House and Senate. Gray persuaded Yee to run for a seat in the House of Representatives in 2010. 

Yee served in the House for two years and then ran for and was elected to the Senate. She soon was chosen as Senate majority leader — only the second woman to hold that position. The first was Sandra Day O’Connor, who later was named to the U.S. Supreme Court. 

In 2014, Yee was named a “Rising Star” by the national committee of the Republican Party. In 2016, she was a featured onstage speaker at the Republican National Convention.

Her continuing interest in the need for fiscal responsibility in Arizona government prompted her own run for state treasurer in 2018. She took office at the beginning of 2019 and immediately began traveling throughout Arizona to learn firsthand what the issues were in the various communities. 

As she explains it, “Because our state is so diverse, it’s important for those of us who come from the Phoenix Metro-centric area to get out and see what it is like in the rural communities. They are unique and have distinctly different needs. That’s why in my first year, I made a point of traveling to all 15 counties and meeting with the people there.”

Noting she has two more years to serve, Yee emphasized she would not relent in continuing to represent the entirety of the Arizona population. 

She added, “We have a highly skilled investment team advising us, too. We’re carefully putting our investment dollars where they will do the most good for the public. For instance, we distributed $342 million into the K-12 education system last year and $358 million this year. And more money goes into the higher education system. Same is true for funds being distributed to the Arizona Pioneers Home, the Arizona State Hospital and the state prisons. The permanent land endowment deposits our Arizona land sales into the Permanent Land Endowment Trust Fund, thus assuring secure and sensible use of those dollars.”

Yee smiles broadly when asked about her future plans.

“I just want to make a difference. So much has been given to me in this great state and country. I just want to dedicate my career to public policy and improving the opportunities we have. I’m optimistic that we are going to come out of the current pandemic stronger and faster than people expect, so we need to have people in positions where they understand how important it is to keep our fiscal house in order. That’s my immediate focus.”

Yee demurred in responding to rumors she’s considering a run for governor in 2022:

 “I’ve had this question before. But right now, I am the state treasurer, and that’s where my efforts will be directed. I love the work that I do.”