State Controller/Comptroller

July 4, 2022

What Is It?

A state controller is a state’s chief accountant and money watchdog. You know how a company has a chief financial officer (CFO)? It’s like that, but for your state. This person is sometimes called a “comptroller,” even though it’s still pronounced “controller” (the English language keeps you on your toes!).

Depending on your state, this person might also:

  • Collect statewide taxes.
  • Make purchases for state agencies.
  • Issue paychecks to state workers.

But the most important task of your state controller is to provide internal financial controls and audit other governmental agencies and contractors to catch fraud, waste, and abuse.

The controller may also sit on state boards that influence important public policies (for example, a board that oversees hospitals or decides how to invest public pensions funds).

Do You Have One?

Nineteen states have controllers: Alabama, Alaska, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Idaho, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia.

In some states, voters elect the controller, while in other states, the governor appoints them. In Tennessee, the state assembly appoints the controller (do your thing, Tennessee).

In states without a dedicated controller, money management duties often fall to the secretary of state or the state treasurer. In other words, this stuff is important to understand no matter where you live.

It’s worth noting that many cities and counties have their own controllers as well.

Why It Matters to You

Your controller is responsible for making sure tax dollars are spent properly, and sniffing out any fraud or waste. This is an often overlooked office when it comes to advocating for the issues you care about.  Instead of (or in addition to) pressuring your lawmakers to allocate more money to support your cause, you might pressure the controller to audit the agencies that spend current allocations to ensure the money is being spent wisely.

If you care about:


Your controller can make sure that private contractors who received government grants for distributing testing kits are spending your tax dollars responsibly.


Your controller may discover that many public schools aren’t following a law requiring them to provide mental health training for school teachers.


In most states, controllers sit on boards that oversee the investing of public employees’ pension funds. Some environmental advocates are urging these boards to remove any investments that are in fossil fuel companies – and your controller might be a decisive voice in agreement or opposition to that idea.

Health Care

Your controller sits on many state boards, some of which may oversee state spending for public hospitals. Those boards decide things like whether public money can go to health care for unauthorized immigrants or to terminate pregnancies, for example.

Housing & Homelessness

Has your state spent money effectively on affordable housing and services for homeless people, or has some of that money gone to waste? Your controller may have the power to conduct an audit to find out, then make recommendations for how state agencies can streamline spending or reduce waste.


Your controller is responsible for making sure your state government spends your tax dollars wisely. That means they have the power to audit any agency in their jurisdiction.


Has your state government been smart about spending revenue from gas taxes to improve roads and bridges? Your controller can dig into the numbers and find out.

How to Make an Impact


If you live in one of the nine states that elects its controller (see above), be sure to register and vote! To research each candidate’s positions on issues you care about, your local newspaper is a great place to start. Many newspapers will interview candidates to learn more about their views, assess how qualified they are, and endorse a particular candidate for the job. Keep your eyes peeled for a candidate forum where members of the public can ask questions and hear from everyone who’s running.

Make Your Issue an Election Issue

Will the controller sit on a board that impacts your life? Will they be willing to audit agencies that spend money on something you care about?  Will they be willing to withhold payments to certain contractors, like ones that violate safety or wage laws? Campaigns are the time to shine a light on the issues you care about

People may not realize that the controller matters when it comes to a particular issue – so let them know! Make your point during candidate debates, in an op-ed or letter to the editor, and to organizations that advocate for your position. They may not have thought about getting involved in the campaign for controller.

Make Your Issue an All-the-Time Issue

Write your controller and ask for a meeting to discuss the issue you care about and what they can do to influence it. For example, if your controller sits on a retired teachers’ pension fund board and you’d like that board to divest from funding fossil fuel companies, lobby your controller and publicize their position.


One important volunteer opportunity is on the campaign for the controller candidate who best reflects your position on the issues. But that opportunity comes around only every four years. In the meantime, you can volunteer with a nonprofit organization that advocates for your issue – and encourage it to get involved in recruiting and supporting controller candidates (within the limits of the law) who will fight for your issue.

Run for Office

Just sayin’.


State controllers are part of a state’s leadership, which means they have relationships with your governor, lieutenant governor, state treasurer, and state legislators. Those are all people who could urge or direct the controller to act on your issue – so ask them to! You can also engage the media to pressure the controller by writing an op-ed for your local newspaper, calling in to a public affairs radio show, or even reaching out to journalists to see if they’d be interested in writing a story.

Speak to the Manager

If your controller is appointed by the governor, get involved before that decision gets made. Ask your governor to consider the issue you care about when appointing a new controller.

On the Ground

In California, a group of environmentalists is supporting a bill that would require state employee pension funds to cut ties with 200 large fossil fuel companies. The state controller sits on two major pension fund boards and this issue has become a big deal in the campaign for the next controller.

In Maryland, the state comptroller launched a new online portal to show when the state had paid contractors for various projects. Most contractors pay their subcontractors promptly, he said, but some take their time – falsely saying they haven’t yet been paid by the state.

Workers at a water utility district in Tennessee suspected the district’s comptroller was engaged in fraud. They alerted the state comptroller, who began an investigation. That investigation revealed the local official had padded – and cashed out – her paid vacation and sick leave. She has since been indicted for computer crimes, forgery, and official misconduct – and the local district recovered more than $13,000 in tax dollars.

Anti-smoking activists in Texas successfully pressured state lawmakers to raise the legal age for buying cigarettes, electronic cigarettes, and other tobacco products from 18 to 21. But it’s the state comptroller who enforces the law.

In Illinois, the comptroller said she would withhold payments to any contractor that doesn’t pay its employees the prevailing wage for state-funded construction projects.

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