© 2022 WSHU
NPR News & Classical Music
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations

New York State Comptroller's race features longtime Democrat and political newcomer

Tom DiNapoli and Paul Rodriguez facebook photos.jpg
Ashley Hupfl
/
WAMC
Tom DiNapoli and Paul Rodriguez official facebook photos

New York voters are deciding who should be the state’s chief financial officer — a longtime figure in state government or a political newcomer.

Republican Paul Rodriguez is running to unseat New York state Comptroller Tom DiNapoli, a Democrat who has held the position since 2007. The comptroller manages the state’s retirement fund, reviews state contracts, and oversees audits of state and local government spending.

A former Assemblyman, DiNapoli was appointed to the post after his predecessor resigned under a cloud. Voters have backed DiNapoli ever since. He says he helped restore integrity and credibility to the office.

“I've put together a great team that has discharged the important responsibilities of comptroller: following the money, providing important oversight. We've managed our pension fund very well. We're among the best funded out of all the state pension plans in the country. So, that's good news for our retirees current and future and for taxpayers, as well.”

Rodriguez is a global financier who wants to use the office to fight corruption, which the Republican says DiNapoli has failed to do.

“During the 15 years that he's been comptroller, there has been one of the worst waves of corruption in state government. He's the type of person who has a wide reputation of being a nice guy. But, unfortunately, part of the reason why he's got this reputation is because they know he's not going to rock the boat. He's not going to stick his neck out too much. So, he's willing to punch down in terms of going after petty corruption, but largely has turned a blind eye to corruption at the highest level.”

Recent polling by Siena College Research Institute shows DiNapoli with a 14-point lead. A Republican has not been elected as state comptroller since Edward Regan in 1990. Siena also found more than two-thirds of likely voters didn’t know enough to have an opinion about DiNapoli, who’s now been in statewide office for more than 15 years.

Rodriguez said the comptroller yields enormous power over the state’s $220.5 billion budget and he would better use the seat as a bully pulpit to shine a light on the state’s financial issues.

“I believe one of the jobs of the comptroller is risk management. One of the ways that you can prevent corruption from continuing to be ingrained - particularly this insipid pay-to-play that has been going on for decades - is to really put it front and center in front of people. And let those elected officials know that, as comptroller, you are going to be shining a light on anything that could be untoward.”

During his time in office, DiNapoli has seen his powers diminished. Arguing it would make government more efficient, then-Governor Andrew Cuomo weakened the comptroller’s pre-audit authority for some state contracts and spending. Earlier this year, the state Legislature passed a bill to restore that power, but Governor Kathy Hochul has not yet signed the bill. The Democrat did not commit to signing the legislation during the only gubernatorial debate hosted by Spectrum News.

“I’m in conversations with the comptroller as we speak about the levels. Obviously, there are certain parameters that are in place, we think we can negotiate a position that recognizes that inflation is out there. So, something that may be worth $50,000 10 or 12 years ago has a different price point. So, we are actually having conversations to make sure that people do feel comfortable and that we restore the oversight system.”

DiNapoli says the bill had overwhelming support in the state Legislature and restores powers back to where they were for decades.

“From my perspective, the legislation is in great shape and the governor should sign it. Obviously, if they want discuss… I think what she indicated some discussion about, talking about some of the thresholds. Ultimately, that's going to have to be negotiation with the Senate and the Assembly and the governor. So, it’d be nice if that would get done sooner than later. Perhaps it's going to have to wait till after the election, but I don't think there's any need for any dramatic change in the legislation that's already been approved. As I said, I think it's in fine shape to be signed the way it is. But, if the (state) Senate (and) the Assembly feel that any proposed chapter amendments would be appropriate without diluting the intent of what they've passed, I'm sure that's something that we could work with them.”

Rodriguez said he believes DiNapoli should be doing more to have those powers restored.

“There were other powers that were taken away as a result of the emergency declaration during COVID, but as soon as that emergency declaration goes away, those powers should by default be restored.”

During an interview with New York NOW, Republican Congressman and gubernatorial candidate Lee Zeldin said the state needs a multi-year budget, instead of annual plans.

“In many respects, if it's education dollars, the timing lines up where a school district has to finalize their budget because it's coming out for a vote and they don't even know how much education dollars they're going to get. They should not only already know how much education aid they're going to get the next school year, they should actually have a pretty good idea how much school aid they're probably going to be getting the year after that, and year after that, year after that, so they could do long term planning. So, multi-year budgeting is something that we need to get into the practice of.”

The state budget is due April 1st of each year. Both candidates said they would be open to multi-year budgeting. DiNapoli said long-term budgeting is a good strategy.

“I think that's one of the challenges we have with New York's budget process that we've had for a long time. It becomes all about closing a budget deal, often last minute, often without much transparency or public discussion and not enough consideration of long-term implications of spending decisions that are being made today that have a growing impact in the out years. So, I think anything to encourage more longer term consideration of how we're managing our budgets, I think that's a good idea.”

Rodriguez agrees, and has another idea.

“Every year, the base budget is zero. It's not simply, ‘Last year this was my budget. So, this year that's my default, and then I'm going to add on top of it.’ Now, every year, you will need to justify every item, every dollar that you're going to spend. So, one year maybe you need ($)100. The next year is ($)150. The next year could be ($)75. It isn't just simply a default. ‘Okay, it was ($)100 and now it's ($)128 and it's ($)125 and it's ($)130, and so on and so on.’ And this is something that can be done on a large scale, because the Marine Corps - certain parts of the Marine Corps - implemented zero-based budgeting and it resulted in a very significant savings for the Marine Corps. Now mind you, we’re talking the Department of Defense, they're not exactly known for being frugal with their money.”

As economists warn of a potential looming recession, both candidates also shared concerns about the state’s economic future. DiNapoli said there is a fair amount of uncertainty surrounding the issue, but added as tax collections continue to come in ahead of projections, the 2022-23 budget should hold together.

“Depending on where the economy is headed over the next couple of months, I do think we all need to be more cautious and lower expectations as we head into the next budget cycle, which actually starts very soon.”

Rodriguez says the state’s current situation is “unstable,” adding budget gaps should not be closed by raising taxes.

“Look at what's not even being talked about or considered, which is spending cuts. We are in a situation where we already have the highest taxes in the nation here in New York. We have a cost-of-living that's going through the roof and getting worse. Because of this reason - and aside from the public safety issues - we have hundreds of thousands of people who have already left the state of New York. So, we cannot just simply burden New Yorkers with more taxation come next year.”

Early voting in New York began October 29th and Election Day is November 8th.

A previous version incorrectly said the state's budget is $22.5 billion instead of $220.5 billion.