ALBANY -- Two men who get a kick out of poring over mind-numbing actuarial reports are vying for the most important state political job most New Yorkers don't understand.
And Democrat Thomas DiNapoli of Great Neck Plaza and Republican Robert Antonacci of Syracuse are fighting to do it.
"It may not be the most glamorous job, but it helps keep New York headed in the right direction," DiNapoli said.
The state comptroller is the sole trustee of the state public pension system, with more than 1 million recipients; critiques the state budget; audits local and state governments and school districts for waste and fraud; and reviews government contracts and bidding on goods such as computers and services such as road paving.
DiNapoli, 60, and Antonacci, 49, the Onondaga County comptroller, diverge on several key issues, including the office's primary responsibility to protect and grow the $180 billion state pension system.
Antonacci would use the office to advocate for a 401(k)-like pension system for future hires, rather than the traditional pension now in place. He said the change would save taxpayers because local and state governments would no longer have to pay as large an employer's share toward a worker's pension. Many governments and most private employers have already moved to the 401(k)-type plans to cut one of their biggest cost drivers.
Any change in the pension system, however, could only be applied to future employees and would have to be approved by the State Legislature. Pension benefits are protected in Albany by politically powerful unions.
Antonacci said governments nationwide are running out of money to cover the pensions of baby boomers, and many local governments in New York face insolvency over the high, mandatory contributions. Antonacci called DiNapoli's description of the New York pension system's health "overly positive."
DiNapoli argues that a 401(k)-type of pension, which is heavily reliant on stock market performance, isn't as safe an investment for workers who are guaranteed a pension under the state constitution. He also believes the current pension system -- with its massive size and diversity of investments -- is safer and a better value than the alternative.
The independent Moody's rating service agrees. Its most recent report states the pension system "is well funded compared to other states and unfunded liability is modest."
"We don't have the problems that other state pension funds have," DiNapoli said. "It gives me confidence that our defined benefit plan is not only safe, but sustainable for the future."
A push for term limits
Antonacci said he would also use the office to advocate for term limits and other measures to attack corruption. Antonacci said DiNapoli, as an auditor and monitor of expense vouchers and other records of lawmakers, should have done more. Federal authorities have charged several lawmakers with padding their travel vouchers and misusing their campaign accounts.
"One of the things we have to talk about is cleaning up corruption," Antonacci said. "I am a huge fan of term limits."
DiNapoli opposes term limits, arguing that voters already have the power to bounce ineffective politicians from office without automatically eliminating effective officials.
He was appointed by the State Legislature in 2007 after Comptroller Alan Hevesi was forced out by a scandal that resulted in his pleading guilty to felony public corruption and serving more than a year in prison. DiNapoli's first actions were to create a policy that ended one of the practices under Hevesi in which politically connected go-betweens would get paid for access to the massive investment power of the pension fund.
"We are in the minority of states that ban that outright," DiNapoli said. "Right now it's a policy of mine. We'd like to see that become law."
DiNapoli also struck an innovative partnership with Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman, a fellow Democrat. DiNapoli's auditors worked with Schneiderman's prosecutors to root out corrupt contracts and grant awards before they are made.
The partnership has resulted in 80 arrests and $12 million in recovered public money. "That elevates the case very quickly," DiNapoli said. "It's actually the linchpin of how something goes from a tip to a prosecution."
Antonacci, in a rarity for the office, said he would bring legal and accounting experience to the job. He is a lawyer and certified public accountant and said that qualifies him more than past comptrollers, who were often career politicians. Antonacci has worked in the private sector in each profession.
Big lead in polls
DiNapoli's path to the job began when he was 18. He was elected to the Mineola school board, which led to his 20-year career in the State Assembly representing his home Nassau County. DiNapoli won a full, four-year term as comptroller in 2010 and has a commanding lead in the polls this year.
DiNapoli had $2.7 million left in his account, according to state financial filings this month, compared to $75,214 for Antonacci. Antonacci was struggling to reach the $200,000 threshold for the state's pilot program of campaign financing. Antonacci would have to reach that amount to reap a 6:1 match from the state in the program aimed at limiting the influence of big money donors.
But Antonacci would have little time to collect and spend the cash in the campaign, in which DiNapoli had at least a 28-point lead in polls this month.
DiNapoli supports campaign finance reform, but said the compromise that came out of the legislature was so flawed he opted out.