Don't let Hochul renege on state comptroller oversight
In late December, Gov. Kathy Hochul signed a law restoring the New York State comptroller’s 100-year-old authority to review state contracts before they are signed. It was a nice holiday gift for the dozens of watchdog groups and unions across the New York political spectrum who supported bringing back the comptroller’s right to “pre-audit” as a crucial check on waste, fraud and corruption.
Since former Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo stripped away this broad independent oversight over executive branch spending in his 2011 and 2012 budgets, billions of dollars in state contracts have avoided comptroller scrutiny — including $6.8 billion in 2015 alone. After the spectacular Buffalo Billion bid-rigging scandal wracked the Cuomo administration in 2016, watchdog groups and editorial boards pressed the State Legislature to restore oversight, noting the rigged construction contracts would never have been approved by the comptroller.
The pre-audit is crucial because it is the only time the comptroller’s office can easily, and cost-effectively, compel agencies and vendors to verify that everything they claim is true. After a contract is signed is too late to stop a crooked deal.
After Cuomo’s resignation in 2021, Hochul seemed to recognize the importance of comptroller pre-audit review, writing in her bill-signing memo: “We must ensure our tax dollars are spent wisely and with appropriate checks and balances . . . The [comptroller] plays a pivotal role in ensuring that there is integrity in our procurement system . . . The legislation is important in our efforts to ensure taxpayer dollars are spent well.”
Stunningly, just a few weeks later, the governor proposed a budget exempting $12.8 billion in 2024 spending from comptroller review and another $2.6 billion from competitive bidding. This is a striking display of political cynicism, even for Albany.
The State Senate and Assembly one-house budget responses rejected the governor’s attempt to spend billions in the shadows. Watchdog groups from the left, right and center wrote legislative leaders to thank them for their defense of the comptroller’s newly restored oversight powers. They also urged the legislature to reject the governor’s attempt to assume big new budget powers they say would give her unilateral spending and borrowing authorities that are unnecessary and fiscally risky.
Audits and contracts may sound like boring stuff, but the stakes for New York taxpayers are huge. Without comptroller pre-audits, billions of our dollars are more likely to be stolen or misused. Watchdog agencies worldwide say contracting is the top corruption risk at all levels of government. New York State spends a huge amount on contracts. Despite being kept away from a big chunk of state deals, the comptroller’s office still reviewed $102.6 billion in contracts in 2019.
Both Cuomo and Hochul claimed at times that comptroller pre-audit significantly delays contract approval. We don’t buy it. The comptroller’s office has repeatedly rebutted that with verifiable facts. According to 2021 data, the comptroller reviewed 18,605 contracts worth $173.4 billion — most within six days, 94% within 15 days, and 99% within 30 days.
Why did Gov. Hochul utterly contradict her own statement supporting the restoration of comptroller pre-audit powers? We hope she changes her mind. Until then, it is up to the Senate and Assembly to preserve this broadly supported tool for fighting waste and corruption in New York State government.
THIS GUEST ESSAY reflects the views of John Kaehny, executive director of watchdog group Reinvent Albany.
This guest essay reflects the views of John Kaehny, executive director of watchdog group Reinvent Albany.