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Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller (left) and Comptroller Peter V.R. Franchot. (File The Daily Record / Bryan P. Sears)

Franchot, Miller exchange heated words over air conditioning

Maryland’s top tax collector and president of the Senate are exchanging heated words over a proposed change that would allow some school construction and renovation funds to be used to pay for window-unit air conditioners.

The terse correspondence centers around Comptroller Peter V.R. Franchot’s public advocacy for air conditioning in Baltimore County and other jurisdictions and the belief that Miller and other legislators attempted to thwart a rule change that would provide more money for window units.

Comptroller Peter Franchot. (The Daily Record / Maximilian Franz)

Comptroller Peter Franchot (The Daily Record / Maximilian Franz)

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. fired back in a two-page missive accusing the state’s tax collector of being more concerned with press releases than doing his job and promising a Senate hearing into the agency over $12-to-15 million that was mistakenly sent to several municipalities instead of to Montgomery County.

Franchot, in a Dec. 11 letter to Miller and House Speaker Michael E. Busch, raised the issue of changing a state policy that would free up money allocated by the Interagency Committee for Public School Construction that could be used for window-unit air conditioners in schools without more modern climate control. But Franchot complained that, just as the commission was set to approve the policy change, Timothy Maloney, a former state delegate who was appointed to the commission by Miller, asked to delay the vote.

“The notion that the leadership of the General Assembly would force a postponement of this vote … was surprising to me,” Franchot wrote to Miller and Busch. “Putting aside the irregular circumstances of the deferral, however, I am pleased with the General Assembly’s newfound interest in this important public health and safety priority. I would be happy to facilitate a discussion between the leadership of your respective chambers, and the children, families, employees and teachers who continue to suffer under conditions that none of us would ever tolerate within our own places of employment. “

Franchot has not been shy about his concern for adding air conditioning to schools, especially in Baltimore County, where the topic has been a frequent bone of contention between the comptroller and Baltimore County Executive Kevin B. Kamenetz.

The comptroller has also raised concerns about other local issues, including calling on Montgomery County to get out of the distribution and sales of liquor and move to a privatized system common in other counties in the state.

But Miller fired back Wednesday, saying that the comptroller shouldn’t be surprised that legislators want to review the proposed policy change and that the Franchot was more interested in seeking attention than doing his job.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller JR.  (The Daily Record/Maximilian Franz)

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (The Daily Record/Maximilian Franz)

“As tax collector for the state, it is indeed fortunate that you do not have to worry about the bigger picture at either the state or local level and can simply harangue others about whatever pops into your head every other Wednesday at the Board of Public Works,” Miller wrote. “While you can print press releases, you cannot print the money from your ivory tower on Calvert Street to address all of the issues or needs in the state.”

Miller also raised concerns about a Washington Post report highlighting $12 million to $15 million in overpayments from the comptroller’s office to municipal governments in Montgomery County — money that was supposed to go to Montgomery County government instead.

“Your attention to local government affairs in places like Baltimore County and Montgomery County is clearly distracting you from your constitutionally mandated responsibilities,” Miller wrote. “Given the severity of the issues, a hearing is certainly warranted early in the 2016 legislative session to examine the extent of the problem your office is experiencing in carrying out your responsibilities.”

This is not the first time Miller and Franchot have locked horns.

In 2008, Franchot accused Miller, a supporter of expanded gambling in the state, of slashing the comptroller’s budget and eliminating the positions of two senior advisers in retaliation for Franchot’s opposition to the state’s expansion into slot machine gambling.

Gambling was a central issue again in 2012, when Franchot publicly called for Miller to step down after accusing the Senate president of holding up approval of the state budget that year in order to get a deal done on a bill that would add a casino to the five already in Maryland. The standoff resulted in two special sessions: one to pass a budget and a second that resulted in a bill that ultimately paved the way for the MGM casino at National Harbor.

It’s a safe bet these two won’t be exchanging Christmas cards this year.