Tom DiNapoli on the Burdens of Being Tom DiNapoli

ALBANY—The state comptroller is a messenger who has to bear a lot of bad news. For example, earlier this month he had to declare that because the pension fund tanked along with stock markets last year, local governments will have to increase the amount they pay into the fund starting in 2011, and will likely have to raise your taxes to do so.

In an interview last week, Tom DiNapoli said he wasn't concerned that voters would hold any of it against him.

"It would be a stretch to say the comptroller of the state of New York is responsible for that, and the question is, how did we respond to that and how did we manage that," DiNapoli said. "I think we've got an excellent story to tell in terms of operation or the clean-up of this office we've done."

DiNapoli–who was an assemblyman from Long Island when he was appointed to replace Alan Hevesi in 2006–was calling from the Syracuse airport. He had delivered the keynote address at a symposium at Clarkson University in Potsdam, swinging through Watertown to meet with the editorial board of the Watertown Daily Times. Then it was back to New York, where he marched in the Labor Day parade, and, finally, home to Long Island.

All of this flies in the face of the conventional wisdom: as an unelected officeholder with low statewide name recognition presiding over a fund that has lost money, and been touched by a pay-to-play scandal, DiNapoli ought to be vulnerable. Compounding things is DiNapoli's refusal to be at the forefront of crusades to reform the state pension system to reduce retiree benefits (on Monday, David Paterson called this "probably the biggest, in addition to health care costs, threat to government survival over the next two years") which could provide a perfect window of attack for a Republican who promises they will.

One proposal Paterson is pushing would create a new pension tier for newly hired workers–it's called Tier V–with less-generous benefits than were offered in the past. DiNapoli has said this is "on the table" and something to be "looked at," but he hasn't been very vocal. The Daily News called him "wimpy" and said that a comptroller "worth his salt would lead the charge to rescue taxpayers by trimming pensions down to reasonable size."

DiNapoli said it's not his role.

"My job is the messenger," he said. "We have to calculate the rates; we have to manage the investments. We don't set the guidelines on who's qualified and who gets vested. That's, obviously, the prerogative of the legislature."

There are currently no other announced candidates for comptroller. DiNapoli is very active, traveling around the state (when was the last time David Paterson was in Potsdam?), and one political operative pointed out he has "an army of people working for him in the grassroots level" because of his former colleagues in the Assembly.

I asked DiNapoli whether a Republican opponent could whip this notion of fat-and-happy bureaucrats making untouchable pensions while most are lucky to get a 401k match into populist fervor. He reminded me that there are some one million people in the state pension plan alone, to say nothing of the Teachers Retirement System or New York City pension plans.

"There's a much broader audience out there that's a little more understanding to the reality, and probably a little more supportive of the fact that a pension fund is a liability that is funded. It's a legal obligation that we have in the state. Beyond that, it's part of the compact we have with our public employees, and contrary to what people may think, it doesn't come for nothing," DiNapoli said. "Whoever would run for the seat, it's too easy to say it costs too much, but people want to hear, how are you going to make it much different? How are you going to make it a lot cheaper? I think there are limitations on the ways in which you can make go away a global financial meltdown and the impact that has on our investments."