Gov. Eliot L. Spitzer and state legislators are turning to three former top government fiscal experts to help guide them in deciding who should fill the state comptroller's post for the next four years following the recent resignation of Alan Hevesi.
Looking to avoid tensions over who ultimately gets to choose the next chief fiscal watchdog for the state, the new governor and top legislators said the three-person panel will devise a list of up to five candidates from which the Legislature must select the next comptroller.
"We have tried to remove politics from this process and create a system that will breed the confidence that is necessary on the part of the public," Spitzer said, adding that the independent panel "will guarantee merit and independence" with the next comptroller.
The panel, which will join state legislators next week in interviewing candidates during public hearings in Albany, includes two former state comptrollers -- Republican Edward Regan, a former Erie County executive, and Democrat H. Carl McCall -- and former New York City Comptroller Harrison Goldin, a Democrat who lost to Regan in the 1978 comptroller's race.
The Legislature will have the final say in approving who gets the statewide post, which is responsible for approving all state spending, conducting audits of state and local government agencies and serving as one of the nation's most powerful single investors as the sole trustee of a government employee pension fund currently valued at about $140 billion.
Because of their overall numbers in the two houses, Democrats -- led by Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver of Manhattan -- will end up controlling the vote.
"Well, no, but probably yes," Regan said when asked if he assumes the next comptroller will be a Democrat. "But suppose we pick five Republicans or suppose there are two Republicans who are by far the best?" Regan added of his panel's final product.
"No, it's not assumed" that the next comptroller will be a Democrat, McCall added. He said the Democrats in the Legislature have given up that guarantee by agreeing to the panel approach. "Let's say we select just three Republicans and send it to them. They'd have to select one of those three," he said.
The decision to go with the unusual selection process, mirroring somewhat a process used to pick judges on the state's highest court, does two things for Spitzer: It allows him to tout another reform he has brought to Albany and keeps relations from souring -- at least for now -- with lawmakers, especially fellow Democrats, over the comptroller issue.
The new process still lets lawmakers control the final vote while providing some public transparency. Asked why he would cede some of his power, Silver, the Legislature's top Democrat, said, "This is a new government."
While the Legislature, according to the State Constitution, can completely control the selection of a new comptroller, Silver said Assembly Democrats "prefer to work cooperatively with the governor, with the Senate, to identify the most qualified men and women who could fill that job."
The new process has question marks. Legislative aides said only candidates who agree to be interviewed in public by the Assembly Ways and Means and Senate Finance committees can be considered by Regan, McCall and Goldin.
But Spitzer said he would be "thrilled" if the panel "expanded the base" of suitors by reaching out to people to test their interest in the job. He also said the three members do not have to unanimously agree on the candidates they forward to lawmakers.
Asked if he wanted a Democrat, Spitzer said, "I want the person who is qualified -- I do not view partisanship as a goal." Silver has said he wants a Democrat to replace Hevesi, a Democrat.
Buffalo Comptroller Andrew A. SanFilippo is one of those trying to get the job. "If we're invited, and we hope to be, the comptroller will give his pitch for why he would be a strong state comptroller," said Tony Farina, a spokesman for SanFilippo.