Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Checking in on the Comptroller

With the next gubernatorial election coming up next year, increased attention is falling on those who may vie to succeed Governor O’Malley, including Democrats Anthony Brown, Doug Gansler, Ken Ulman, and Heather Mizeur and Republicans David Craig, Larry Hogan, Dan Bongino, Blaine Young, and Charles Lollar.

Absent from this hubbub: Maryland Comptroller Peter Franchot, who announced last year he would seek reelection to his current position rather than pursuing the governor's chair, as many had expected.

As a political personality, Franchot intrigues me. Originally an unapologetic, bomb-throwing progressive legislator from Takoma Park, as comptroller Franchot has emerged as a taxpayer watchdog and advocate for improving Maryland’s business climate.

Minimally Peter Franchot is a case study in effective political rebranding. But his repositioning could also be viewed as consistency coming from a politician who relishes playing a contrarian role tailored to whatever political landscape he happens to occupy.

In other words, the progressive happy warrior lobbing grenades at a Republican governor from the floor of the legislature isn’t all that different than the steward of fiscal responsibility criticizing the policies of an unapologetically liberal, ambitious governor from his seat on the Board of Public Works.

Even though Franchot is not part of the gubernatorial conversation, he has still been getting his fair share of attention – some of it unwanted – in Annapolis these days.

Last week, Senators Nancy King and David Brinkley sent a letter to the comptroller in which they expressed how “gravely troubled” they were by Franchot’s travels around the state to bestow four separate awards created by the comptroller’s office since 2010 onto Maryland citizens.

“No other members of the Board of Public Works or prior Comptrollers have engaged in this kind of behavior connected to their role as members of the Board or serving as Comptroller,” Senators King and Brinkley wrote. “We see no reason why any of your State duties or responsibilities justifies the taxpayer financed expense of paying for a driver, security, gas, car mileage, or the manufacture and purchase of questionably invented awards.”

In his response, Franchot noted that, “none of these ‘gravely’ troubling issues were referenced in the analysis of our budget by the Department of Legislative Services. Nor were they discussed in any meaningful detail by you or your colleagues during our budget hearing. It is glaringly obvious that this letter is motivated not by honest fiscal stewardship, but by lingering resentment over some of the positions that I have taken, and some of the statements that I have made, as an independently-elected Comptroller.”

This kind of epistolary back and forth is quite common during session time in Annapolis. Legislators who question how state leaders choose to allocate resources get to demonstrate to their constituents that they are “fiscally responsible” while perhaps grabbing a headline or two in the process.

That said, I have a few observations.

First, when I interned for Congresswoman Helen Bentley during college, occasionally I would travel with her on the weekends as she made appearances around her district. Frequently we would encounter other Maryland politicos making the rounds as well. The one we encountered the most: Comptroller Louis L. Goldstein, who reliably showed up at most major gatherings. Later, Comptroller Schaefer did not exactly hide from the public in his office, either.

In other words, ample precedent exists for comptrollers traveling around the state and meeting their constituents. Even by adding a PR device like award presentations to the mix, I’m not sure that Franchot’s actions constitute an outrageous deviation from the past.

Second, everyone knows the Comptroller’s Office is largely a turnkey operation, and does not require daily micromanagement. So unless Franchot begins blowing off Board of Public Works meetings to hand out awards, I’m not sure anyone can accuse him of neglecting his duties.

Third, Senators King and Brinkley’s criticism would carry more weight if Franchot were, in fact, running for governor. Then the perception would be that Franchot was campaigning for governor on state time using state resources. But, he’s not, and no one seriously believes his reelection as comptroller is in jeopardy – award presentations or not.

The comptroller’s awards program, just like everything he does in his official capacity, is subject to scrutiny and criticism by the people's representatives and by members of the state’s minority party. The citizens of Maryland have a right to know these award presentations are happening. So, while it was fair game for Senators King and Brinkley to raise the issue, in the end I don’t think anyone is going to care.

A more serious challenge to Franchot’s authority comes in the form of House Bill 660, which would strip the Comptroller’s office of some of its traditional tax collecting functions. Specifically it would transfer administrative and regulatory responsibility for the state’s motor fuel, tobacco, and alcohol taxes to the State Department of Labor, Licensing, and Regulation (DLLR), and reassign the Field Enforcement Division from the Comptroller’s office to DLLR.

The consensus among Maryland politicos is that HB 660 is an attempt by the Democratic establishment to punish Franchot for his maverick ways, especially his opposition to last year’s gambling expansion referendum.

Not surprisingly, Franchot doesn’t think HB 660 is a good idea, calling it an attempt to, “effectively dismantle a highly performing division of government with a longstanding record of success (and) needlessly disrupt a regulatory system that has been defined over the course of time by its predictability, independence and responsiveness.”

Further, his office notes that the bill comes with a significant price tag for Maryland taxpayers: $17.6 million in FY 14, with an estimated total cost of $68.7 million during the next five years.

Being a Republican in deep-blue Maryland, I sometimes relish watching intramural squabbles among the members of the majority party (the 2002 cold war between Kathleen Kennedy Townsend and Martin O’Malley being perhaps the most entertaining of all). But I would advise my fellow partisans to not regard these efforts to go after the comptroller as being a beneficial development.

The reality is, Comptroller Franchot has been the only statewide elected official to advocate for some of the issues important to Republicans. For example, given his liberal legislative background, it sure surprises me that Peter Franchot has been perhaps the loudest opponent of efforts to raise the gas tax.

But I’ll surely take it.

With Republicans having only a negligible chance of winning the governor’s mansion next year, Franchot may be our best opportunity to have an influential, somewhat sympathetic voice participating in the debate.

If you can’t elect the Republican governor you want, support the Democratic comptroller you’ve got. 

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