Declawing the State Comptroller

Written by NY Press on . Posted in Opinion and Column, Opinion Our Town, Opinion West Side Spirit, Our Town, Our Town Downtown, West Side Spirit.


Move to strip DiNapoli’s auditing power doesn’t pass smell test

By Alan S. Chartock

Political theorists have long raved about the advantages of balanced government. It is always best to have one independent branch looking over the shoulder of the others; balanced government helps prevent abuses.

When the very popular Andrew Cuomo was elected governor, it could easily be said that he had a mandate from the people to clean up Albany. In fact, that’s exactly what he said he would do. Unfortunately, from this perch, Albany looks pretty much the same as it always has.

We still see the powerful legislative majority leaders drawing districts that give them a better chance of winning. We still see legislators asking for raises and likely getting them while they dismiss the possibility of raises or pensions for civil servants, including our teachers.
There are some very dangerous things happening in the state capital. One of the most dangerous is a move by the powerful governor to take away the “pre-auditing” function from the independently elected state comptroller. The people who wrote the state constitution made the comptroller independent so he or she could audit the other branches. Anyone who runs a business or a not-for-profit organization knows that at least once a year, businesses have to be audited.

In New York State, the comptroller has always had the ability to pre-audit contracts. That means that before a state contract can be let, the comptroller has to take a look at it to determine if there is any bad smell to it.

Is a contract about to be let to people who are fiscally enigmatic? You wouldn’t want suspicious people like the mob pouring the concrete for the soon-to-be-rebuilt Tappan Zee Bridge. You wouldn’t want suspicious people running a large gambling casino in Queens. Without this important pre-auditing function, by the time the contract had been let, the horse would have long been out of the barn.

Unfortunately, the power to pre-audit major contracts was taken away from the comptroller in the powerful governor’s budget. When that happened, my eyebrows shot up toward the sky. Why in the world would you take this kind of protection away from the people of New York? I wrote about it in this column; I opined about it on the radio, but the response was anything but deafening. The subject, esoteric as it was, was ignored by almost everyone.

I recently spoke with State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli about it on the radio. He was not reticent in his response. When I asked him about the governor’s move to strip him of the important pre-audit function, he said the move “made no sense.” And, with imaginary dark music playing in the background, DiNapoli said that he hoped that there would be no other moves like this one to cut down on the comptroller’s powers. He has always said, “It is my responsibility to be an independent voice, and I take that very seriously.”

It is no secret that DiNapoli was not Cuomo’s choice for the comptroller’s job. DiNapoli is the kind of guy who gets along with everyone. Cuomo’s reticence in supporting his fellow Democrat was perplexing.

When the comptroller’s office is vacant, it is the Legislature’s responsibility to fill the office. The Legislature elected DiNapoli, who then went on to run for a full term without fellow Democrat Cuomo’s support. Anyone besides DiNapoli might have resented that just a little, but DiNapoli is like Ferdinand the Bull: He does not like these things to become personal, he’d rather just smell the flowers.

Despite that attitude, the more bellicose Cuomo has carried the fight to the comptroller for no good reason that I can see. Maybe it’s that the comptroller could get in the way of some of the governor’s plans.

In any case, I’m glad I asked DiNapoli the question and I’m especially glad that he answered it. Sometimes, even Ferdinand got angry—like that time he got stung by the bee.

Alan S. Chartock is president and CEO of WAMC/Northeast Public Radio and an executive publisher at The Legislative Gazette.

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