In-The-News: New York governor wants state pension fund to divest fossil fuel company stocks

This article originally appeared in the New Castle News, December 22, 2017

ALBANY, N. Y. — As Gov. Andrew Cuomo tells it, the state pension fund — the third largest retirement nest egg for public employees in the nation — should sell off its investment in fossil fuel companies that have polluted the environment with products that worsen global climate change.

"That is the energy of yesterday," he told reporters this week after previewing a proposal that he plans to stitch into his Jan. 3 State of the State speech. "It is literally polluting the planet."

The $201.3 billion New York State and Local Retirement System fund, as it is officially called, is managed by state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli.

As the fund's sole trustee, DiNapoli has resisted earlier calls from green activists for divestment in oil and natural gas companies. He has contended that as a shareholder with a seat at the table he is in a better position to influence corporate behavior than he would be if he sold off the pension fund's stake in those companies.

Cuomo, who has no oversight role over the fund, cast his interest in an avuncular way, suggesting that he wants to "protect the retirement savings of New Yorkers." But with the governor poised to seek a third term in Albany in 2018 and leaving the door open for a run for the White House in 2020, the pension fund divestment issue has already triggered speculation that political considerations were a factor in the proposal.

But the governor's move has spawned concerns that a green energy litmus test over investment decisions could end up limiting the fund's growth should Cuomo's prognostications regarding energy sector stocks prove to be flawed.

"The comptroller needs to stick to his guns and understand that his fiduciary responsibility is to the beneficiaries" of the fund, said Christopher Burnham, the former Connecticut state treasurer who served as the sole trustee of the Nutmeg State's pension fund from 1995 to 1997.

"You have to invest these monies cautiously, carefully and wisely, and without allowing a personal agenda to play a role in how you execute your duties," said Burnham, a Republican and native New Yorker who is chairman of Cambridge Global Advisors in Virginia.

DiNapoli and Cuomo are downstate Democrats, though at times the relationship between the two has been chilly. Since Cuomo advanced his pension proposal, the comptroller has avoided arguing with the governor over the issue, instead signaling that he welcomes the "opportunity to partner" with Cuomo via an advisory council aimed at "achieving investment returns."

DiNapoli further stated that while he has "no immediate plans to divest our energy holdings," the New York pension fund has been a leader in advancing climate change goals and is increasing its current stake of more than $5 billion in "sustainable" investments.

"We believe in engagement with companies," DiNapoli said in responding in June to a CNHI inquiry about a push for divestment by a coalition calling itself Elected Officials to Protect New York.

Republicans lost no time in accusing Cuomo of meddling in an arena where they say he has no business.

“The public pension fund does not exist so Andrew Cuomo can use it to build a campaign platform for a presidential run," said Assembly GOP Leader Brian Kolb, who has announced he is a candidate for governor.

By taking on the fight for divestment, though, Cuomo may be choosing a pathway that could put octane into any future run for the presidency, said Harvey Schantz, the chairman of the political science department at the State University at Plattsburgh.

"Running for governor in New York state and running for the Democratic nomination for the presidency present overlapping opportunities," Schantz said. "You have to show liberal bona fides and you have to show executive ability. First, he has to get re-elected as governor. But by staking out liberal positions, he could be helping himself in New York and also helping himself win the Democratic nomination."

In advancing his proposal, Cuomo pointed out that the World Bank plans to stop financing gas and oil exploration projects, and the Norwegian sovereign wealth fund is already shedding its fossil fuel investments.

While it is DiNapoli who calls the shots at the pension fund, Cuomo is not out of line in suggesting that its portfolio mix be shuffled in ways that promote greater reliance on renewable energy, said Larry Levy, a longtime observer of New York politics and director of the National Center for Suburban Studies at Hofstra University,

Levy suggested that Cuomo has been steadily building his record as an advocate for expanded use of solar and wind energy and is the architect of the state's policy to have the state's energy diet include no less than 50 percent renewable energy by 2030. The Cuomo administration, he added, has also kept the gas drilling technique known as hydraulic fracturing from being introduced in New York.

"He can't be accused of posturing on this issue because he has gone all-in on reducing the reliance of fossil fuels in a big way," he said. "It's not as if he has suddenly discovered an issue and is coming out to please a certain constituency."

As to the speculation that Cuomo is preparing a White House run, Levy said, "2018 is 2020. If a U.S. senator or governor doesn't knock it out of the park in his home state in 2018, then he or she is going to drop precipitously on any list for any national election."