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Choosing a comptroller Replacing Hevesi poses a test of cooperation among state leaders

It's a new day in Albany, but the speaker of the Assembly evidently didn't get the memo. That, or he doesn't much care about the memo. Written by voters. Delivered in November.

Speaker Sheldon Silver seems to want to back out of an agreement he struck with Gov. Eliot L. Spitzer covering the appointment of a state comptroller to replace Alan G. Hevesi, who resigned last month upon pleading guilty to a felony.

Under terms of the deal, a panel of former comptrollers screened candidates for the appointment. The panel was to name up to five finalists, from whom lawmakers would select a new comptroller.

The understanding began to fray almost from the start. Spitzer thinks the comptroller should not be an Albany insider, while Silver contends that an Assembly member would have better knowledge of the complicated way state government works. That's undoubtedly true, given that legislators are responsible for the complicated way state government works, but never mind. Spitzer has the better argument.

The disagreement came to a head last week when the panel recommended only three candidates, none of whom was a legislator. Silver, the day before the recommendations were issued, announced that the deal wasn't binding and warned that he might consider it broken if the panel didn't forward five names.

Anyone with even an ounce of skepticism has to think Silver's interest has something to do with wanting an ally in an influential office. Conversely, it is also true that an ally of the governor, as one of the candidates is, might tread more lightly in auditing executive branch agencies or in evaluating the governor's budget proposals.

So pick your poison: Who is less likely to manipulate the system, a governor elected on an unambiguous platform of reforming a broken state government, or a legislative leader whose lack of interest in reform is written all over recent Albany history?

It's not just a matter of having greater faith in Spitzer, though. Recent comptrollers have made a point of hammering the state over its addiction to debt, especially "back door" debt, deceitfully issued through state authorities in order to circumvent the constitutional requirement of a referendum.

That spending is authorized by state legislators -- in particular, Senate Republicans and, yes, Assembly Democrats. We can't see how one of the state's legislators, whose fingerprints are all over this state's horrendous debt load, can be an effective crusader against it, especially when his employment is decided by Silver, the Assembly's borrower-in-chief.

It's true that the two previous comptrollers, Hevesi and H. Carl McCall, were once state legislators, but both also had extensive fiscal experience, Hevesi as New York City comptroller and McCall on Wall Street. The names forwarded by the comptroller panel also have significant financial experience. They are New York City Finance Commissioner Martha E. Stark, Nassau County Comptroller Howard S. Weitzman and William J. Mulrow, an investment banker who is close to Spitzer and who ran for comptroller four years ago.

This is an early test for Silver and the Democrats in the Legislature. Either they will abide by their agreement with Spitzer or they won't. If they don't, they need to explain very clearly to the state's angry voters why their choice is better than all of the candidates selected by the comptroller's panel.

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