More Mr. Nice Guy: Tom DiNapoli on his role in Cuomo’s Albany

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Tom DiNapoli. (Via dinapoli_tom's flickr stream.)
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It's not in Tom DiNapoli's nature to be confrontational. He's widely regarded as one of the only resolutely nice people in a nasty business, and that has its good points. But he was at pains in a phone interview on the first day after his ceremonial inauguration as comptroller to explain that it is part of his job to disagree with Andrew Cuomo.

"The reality is that this office has an oversight role, an independent role that needs to be respected," DiNapoli said. "Between the governor and myself I think the communication has been good. We've talked a couple of times." 

DiNapoli also noted that Cuomo had been "generous" enough to invite him to the governor's inauguration ceremony. But, he said, there will inevitably be some institutional tension.

"I'm not here to be a rubber stamp, and nor will we be," he said.

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There is some recent back-story between the two politicians that is less institutional than personal. Cuomo cast about for a Democratic challenger to DiNapoli long before the election, and then pointedly refused to endorse the incumbent comptroller in the general election. Possible explanations for this, which are not mutually exclusive, are: Cuomo was not particularly impressed withi the level of voluntary help provided by DiNapoli in examining and transforming the scandal-tarnished office of the comptroller, even after Cuomo's investigations as attorney general resulted in the ouster and prosecution of DiNapoli's predecessor Alan Hevesi; Cuomo, an Italian-American male from Westchester via Queens, thought he could do better in terms of ticket-balance than an Italian-American male from Long Island; Cuomo did not particularly wish for DiNapoli, a former assemblyman and an ally of his soon-to-be negotiating counterparty, the powerful assembly speaker Sheldon Silver, to remain in an office that has the power to investigate the soundness of the budgets the governor signs off on, the awarding of state contracts, and the management of the state's assets.

DiNapoli should have plenty to do in his capacity as an auditor, just as Cuomo will have his work cut out for him reconciling his campaign promises with his real-life ability to balance the books. Entering office facing a $9 billion budget deficit, he has promised to cap property taxes and not to introduce any new ones, proposing to make up the shortfall through reduction of the size of state government and, much more significantly, cuts to spending on Medicaid. 

Cuomo has also taken the unusual step of promising to appoint representatives of "stakeholders"—the very same special interests who stand to be hit hardest by the spending cuts—to a number of task forces which would make recommendations about how the state's spending cuts might be implemented. (This a theme of Cuomo's proposals: In one that relates more directly to DiNapoli, who as comptroller is the custodian of the state's public-employee pension fund, the governor has advocated the creation of a board of experts to oversee pension-fund investments, ending the comptroller's status as the fund's sole trustee.)

DiNapoli said that the broad outlines of the Cuomo agenda sound correct for now, in the absence of any further detail. Cuomo, as he pointed out, has yet to present his budget; the deadline for that isn't until Feb. 1.

The comptroller already sounds skeptical, if politely so, about at least one of Cuomo's initiatives: Cuomo's plan, passed by the legislature when he was still attorney general, to streamline local government by allowing villages, towns and special districts to vote for their own dissolution. The hideous troubles of county-level government in his home county of Nassau as well as others, DiNapoli said, "would argue less in terms of consolidation and perhaps more in terms of some of the state policies that impact on counties."

But for the most part, the comptroller is bullish on the new governor's proposals, and his chances of delivering on them.

Here's what DiNapoli thinks Cuomo has going for him that his unfortunate predecessor didn't: a mandate, but also the strong possibility of cooperation at budget-negotiation time from the Republican-led State Senate. Referring to the recent formation of a breakaway "independent" Democratic caucus, which effectively bolsters what would otherwise be a mere two-vote Republican majority in that house, DiNapoli said: "Right now you have this other group of Democrats that seems to have a working relationship with the majority leader, and also Democrats that have expressed support for Governor Cuomo. That has created interesting possibilities in terms of the governor's relationship with the Senate .... My guess, in terms of the governor's agenda, is that this will make it easier for him to get the votes he needs."

This potential alliance would become particularly important when it falls to Sheldon Silver and the Assembly, again, to resist a governor's efforts to compel the legislature to cut deeper than it wants to. And it could in fact be the biggest difference, according to DiNapoli, between Cuomo and late-in-the-game Paterson, whose attempts to get tough with the legislature on budget matters went about as well as you'd expect them to go for an unpopular, unelected lame duck.

"For any governor to be successful, it's not just what you propose—it's the ability to get consensus in the majority in both houses and move an agenda," he said. "I suspect this governor may have some strong successes more quickly than the previous governor had toward end of his tenure." 

He also said that his office was now looking forward to the governor's upcoming budget proposal, when, presumably, the time for pleasantries comes to an end.