Tom DiNapoli has held the role of state comptroller for more than decade. As the state’s chief fiscal officer and sole trustee of New York’s common retirement fund, DiNapoli has navigated through economic crises, stabilized and grown the pension fund, taken on public corruption, and shone a spotlight on agencies and municipalities through the auditing process, while managing an office of more than 2,700 employees to get the work done.
Now, as he seeks his third full term, the focus turns back on DiNapoli’s record, and it’s clear the Great Neck Democrat has done the job well. The state’s pension fund has grown to $207.4 billion, gaining 11.35 percent in the fiscal year that ended in March. Some of those gains are due to a high-performing market, but that strength has put the fund on a more stable path, and has helped significantly narrow the gap between its assets and the benefits it pays out to public employees. New York’s pension fund continues to be one of the best-funded plans in the country, at 98 percent. DiNapoli will have to rethink the fund’s asset allocations, and likely lower the assumed rate of return, now at 7 percent, to reduce risks.
DiNapoli, 64, is disciplined but searching in his investment choices, deciding, for instance, not to divest fully from fossil fuel companies, despite political pressure to do so. That choice, he said, is in part because of his fiduciary responsibility to get the best possible return, and in part because he thinks it’s best to have a seat — a significant one because of the importance of the fund and the size of its investments — at the shareholder table to push corporations like Exxon Mobil to make better choices for the environment. Yet, DiNapoli also hopes to find the right investments in renewable energy and green technology because it is a growth area. He should continue that effort and, if possible, divest further from fossil fuels, while balancing the good governance with good returns.
The state comptroller has wide-ranging oversight of how taxpayer dollars are used by state agencies and many local governments. His office audits school districts, local municipalities like Long Beach and agencies like the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and the state Department of Health. Most recently, DiNapoli found that the MTA’s budget gap could approach $634 million by 2022, and that the Long Island Rail Road lacked protocols to appropriately respond to incidents that occurred during the height of service disruptions late last year and early this year. DiNapoli can and should do more. He promises to address the issue of larger-than-necessary school reserves by potentially introducing legislation to combat them, and to look more carefully at industrial development agencies. But his powers have been limited by the State Legislature, which in 2011 removed the comptroller’s ability to pre-review economic development contracts. The absence of DiNapoli’s input was particularly felt in light of corruption charges that emerged from the Buffalo Billion economic development effort. State lawmakers should return that jurisdiction, and DiNapoli should be relentless in demanding the restoration of that power.
Working with the new attorney general, DiNapoli should make it a priority to re-energize the joint task force on public integrity to investigate official corruption.
DiNapoli’s opponent is investment banker Jonathan Trichter. Trichter worked for 2010 GOP comptroller candidate Harry Wilson as campaign policy director, and then became an employee in Wilson’s corporate restructuring firm. Trichter, 47, cites his work with Wilson as the experience that prepares him to be comptroller, but he’s done little on his own. The Manhattan resident said he would bring the state pension fund’s assumed rate of return down to 6 percent, which he said would be more honest and realistic, and he prefers a strategy of passive index-fund investment, which he said would bring better returns by not paying fees.
Trichter, a former Democratic operative who switched his registration to Republican in May, is right to suggest the comptroller can use his powers more aggressively, but goes too far in suggesting he would hold up state budgets by making himself the “fourth person in the room” until he got the policies and budget he wanted. His caustic, bombastic attitude wouldn’t serve him well, and his lack of managerial experience to lead a huge office makes him a nonstarter.
DiNapoli knows Albany’s players and its ways better than most. He is widely respected. He should use that capital to give his bully pulpit a louder voice and aggressively use his auditing power to further spotlight public corruption.
Newsday endorses DiNapoli.