The Buffalo News

DiNapoli, Trichter vie to be state’s fiscal watchdog

Comptrolle­r oversees $207B pension fund

- By Robert J. McCarthy NEWS POLITICAL REPORTER

With more than $207 billion in assets, the New York State pension fund ranks as the nation’s third largest.

It is also administer­ed by a sole trustee – the state comptrolle­r.

That’s why even though the statewide office often glides beneath the political radar, it ranks in utmost importance to the more than 1.4 million New Yorkers vested in the system.

Now, with Election Day approachin­g, Democrat Thomas P. DiNapoli is defending his 11-year tenure administer­ing the fund and acting as the state’s fiscal watchdog. But investment banker Jonathan Trichter is mounting a vocal though underfunde­d challenge as he attempts to become the state’s first Republican comptrolle­r since Buffalo’s Edward V. Regan retired in 1993.

Trichter faces a huge challenge since Democrats outnumber Republican­s in New York by more than 3 million voters. The incumbent also is on local and statewide

Comptrolle­r

television with a positive message about his tenure, spending about $690,000 in the last campaign reporting period with almost $2.1 million still on hand.

Trichter reported only $68,000 in recent expenses and $153,000 remaining. But he is making his case, perching in front of the Tesla plant in South Buffalo a few days ago to echo a familiar Republican claim that the state’s Buffalo Billion economic developmen­t program spawned a slew of criminal indictment­s because of Albany’s lax oversight.

He proposes a vast overhaul of the comptrolle­r’s powers, as well as using existing tools, and says he has the independen­ce to do it.

“I don’t have many friends in Albany,” he said in a recent visit to the The Buffalo News’ Editorial Board.

Trichter is a Wall Street veteran who earned his public finance stripes while working for J.P. Morgan and other major firms. He also has worked for corporate turnaround guru Harry Wilson, who unsuccessf­ully ran for comptrolle­r in 2010 and is mentioned as a future Republican candidate for governor. Trichter says during that time he has studied the office and believes he could easily flex much more of the office muscle for taxpayers.

“I have always believed this office had the power to do many things unilateral­ly,” he said, “as opposed to being too much in debt to Albany and the status quo.”

He believes the comptrolle­r could earn a higher rate of return on its investment, and that DiNapoli has proven “not very ambitious” when it comes to maximizing the fund. But Trichter breaks new ground in addressing a mounting debt load he pegs at $3,100 for every New Yorker. Much of that stems from “back-door borrowing” by the Thruway Authority, Dormitory Authority and other entities that bypass the legislativ­e process, he said, and notes that DiNapoli favors a constituti­onal amendment to ban it.

“You don’t need a constituti­onal amendment, you could ban it yourself,” Trichter said of the comptrolle­r. “I would end backdoor borrowing in New York State.

“I could do it unilateral­ly as comptrolle­r,” he added, “and that would trigger a crisis for the Legislatur­e to come up with another system.”

He also says the comptrolle­r could simply refuse to certify the budget adopted by the governor and Legislatur­e to open up the state’s “three men in a room” budget process. If it results in litigation, he says, he is ready. “I would go to war on that one,” he says. But DiNapoli likes the steady processes of his office that he said have worked for more than a decade. He points to New York as one of four big states with a pension funded – the amount of money in the fund relative to what is owed pensioners – at over 90 percent (98 percent).

“To be that well funded while others are not shows we’ve struck the right balance,” he says.

DiNapoli, a former Nassau County executive and assemblyma­n, advocates restoring to the comptrolle­r powers that formerly let the office supervise economic developmen­t programs like the Buffalo Billion (though Trichter says his opponent has not pushed hard enough).

“I can tell you for sure,” DiNapoli said of potential wrongdoers, “if people know someone else is looking, they’ll think twice.”

He says the governor has not embraced his call to regain the oversight powers sacrificed for expediency in economic developmen­t projects. “I hope to push for it again,” he said. And he points out that his office, in conjunctio­n with the attorney general and law enforcemen­t, has recovered $54 million and was involved in 190 arrests since 2011.

But as satisfied as he may be with state finances, DiNapoli also warns about “very high” debt levels. The nation’s humming economy may favor the state, he says, but he is worried about more borrowing – especially if a downturn slams the markets.

“Should we have a significan­t downturn, we should not be borrowing our way out,” he said. “To the Legislatur­e, I say we’re overextend­ed on debt. I would prefer we be on more solid footing for a downturn.”

Even Democrat DiNapoli appears aware of changes to state government should his party capture the Senate on Tuesday. He warns that an upper house dominated by New York City Democrats could pose problems, especially since the divide between upstate and downstate still presents an economic “tale of two states.”

“If the Senate becomes a city-centric conference in their decisions, that will not be good for the state,” he said. “My advice is that if you get this, don’t forget ... you represent the rest of the state,” he added. “It may be that the Assembly ends up being the conservati­ve house of the Legislatur­e.”

As he heads toward Election Day, DiNapoli seems to be girding for some kind of downturn and emphasizes he is already advocating the necessary steps to prepare. He pointed to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s “tough decisions” during his early days at the state helm, and promises to be a voice for what may lie ahead.

“A lot falls on the governor to set the right tone and priorities, and the governor prides himself on his fiscal management,” he said. “It’s going to be a challenge.”

 ??  ?? Democratic incumbent Comptrolle­r Thomas DiNapoli faces Republican Jonathan Trichter, an investment banker.
Democratic incumbent Comptrolle­r Thomas DiNapoli faces Republican Jonathan Trichter, an investment banker.
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