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Len N. Foxwell: Diatribe against Franchot way off mark

Len N. Foxwell

Len N. Foxwell

This is a response to the Dec. 14 commentary piece in The Daily Record from Diane Riibe.

While Comptroller Peter Franchot welcomes diverse perspectives on the issue of craft beer reform, the timing of her entry into this discussion is quite suspect. It’s rather odd that someone who until recently worked for a government-subsidized advocacy group 1,400 miles away and who now oversees an organization with no ties to Maryland and offers no evidence of past residency, advocacy or legislative engagement in our state has suddenly adopted such a fervent interest in Franchot’s efforts to reform Maryland’s dysfunctional craft beer laws.

Putting the questionable timing of her concerns aside, I’d like to take a moment to respond to the issues raised in Riibe’s conveniently-timed paean to Prohibition. First, her unsubstantiated comment that “long before the comptroller’s pro-industry task force on craft breweries, he appeared to be doing the bidding of the alcohol industry to expand alcohol sales in the state to the detriment of Marylanders’ health, safety and general well-being” simply reflects a lack of knowledge about Franchot, his body of work or the duties of his office.

Had she done her own research, she would have known the following:

  • Even while supporting reforms to drag Maryland’s wine laws into the 21st century, Franchot was leading the charge to protect the health and safety of underage consumers. In 2010, he brokered an agreement with Maryland’s alcohol distributors and retailers to voluntarily discontinue the sale of caffeinated alcohol beverages – such as Four Loko and Joose – after numerous reports of serious injuries, deaths and fatal car crashes among underage consumers.
  • In 2015, Franchot once again worked with Maryland’s distributors and retailers – in this instance, a ban on the sale of powdered alcohol, which when mixed with water would create a powerful and highly dangerous drink.
  • The Maryland Comptroller’s Office has earned a national reputation for its work to crack down on the smuggling of both alcohol and tobacco products, prevent illegal sales, guarantee that all appropriate taxes are collected and remitted, and ensure that these products are kept out of the hands of children. The comptroller’s Field Enforcement Division has seized nearly $5 million worth of contraband cigarettes and Other Tobacco Products (OTP); 82,000 containers of smuggled beer, as well as 4,500 gallons of wine and distilled spirits that would otherwise have been sold illegally, and without the proper collection of taxes, to Maryland’s children and other consumers.

Second, Riibe remarks that “Franchot’s hands-on involvement advocating for the expansion of alcohol sales and consumption seems to be unprecedented for someone in his position. This extraordinary focus on expanding alcohol sales – while ignoring the concerns of many in the state who don’t think a bar, brewery or liquor store on every corner is needed – exemplifies gross disregard on the part of an elected state official.”

Every single word of her statement is both incorrect and inane. First, no public official is more ideally positioned to point out the shortcomings of current laws and regulations than the one who is entrusted with their daily enforcement. It is wholly appropriate for the Maryland’s independently-elected chief fiscal officer to use his position and platform to elevate public awareness of our state’s 84 working craft breweries, and to advocate for laws that will foster their competitiveness, success and long-term growth.

In fact, it would be an abdication of duty if he failed to embrace policies that strengthen his state’s long-term fiscal and economic outlook. Second, at no point has Franchot ever advocated for the “expansion of alcohol sales and consumption.” In fact, the work of the Reform on Tap Task Force proceeded with the guidance from national experts that beer consumption in Maryland is flat (pun unintended).

Recognizing that this trend is unlikely to change, and attentive to the fact that the economic benefits of consuming Maryland craft beer are 54 percent greater than those that accrue from the consumption of Budweiser or Miller Coors products, it has been the comptroller’s goal to dismantle antediluvian laws that benefit industrial beer monopolies at the expense of Maryland’s small, independent entrepreneurs.

Finally, in case anyone reading Riibe’s piece fears that Franchot truly aspires to transform Maryland communities into scenes from a Toulouse-Lautrec exhibit, I challenge her to point out one instance where he has called for a “bar, brewery or liquor store on every corner.” He has never done so, and decisions on the location, dimension, scope and aesthetics of such businesses reside in the hands of our local governments, not state officials.

To be sure, there are more questions than answers surrounding Riibe’s abrupt arrival to the debate over the state of Maryland’s craft beer laws. What is striking is that the timing and message of her piece are in perfect synchronicity with those of the leadership of our House of Delegates. Her pharisaic concerns over public health and safety of a state in which she doesn’t live or work mirror those expressed by House Speaker Michael E. Busch during his recent, highly irregular appearance at an alcohol briefing hosted by the Economic Matters Committee.

Her missive is also strikingly reflective of an editorial recently authored by Del. Dereck Davis. In that piece, Davis seeks to assure readers that House Bill 1283 is a really good thing for Maryland’s craft brewers. This obviously contradicts the belief of Maryland’s craft brewers that HB 1283 is a really bad thing for Maryland’s craft brewers. Every aspect surrounding Riibe’s abrupt engagement on the issue of craft beer reform is, to say the least, highly suspicious and bears all of the standard earmarks of a familiar Annapolis archetype – the advocate-for-hire.

To be blunt, Riibe’s theatrical outrage at Franchot’s support of Maryland’s craft beer industry – staged under the guise of public health – evinces all of the motivational sincerity of a Jimmy Swaggart pledge drive. And it is deeply insulting to those honorable Marylanders who actually work within the legislative process to safeguard the public interest.

Len N. Foxwell is chief of staff for state Comptroller Peter Franchot.