Maryland Democratic lawmakers may be looking for more ways to strip authority from Comptroller Peter Franchot before the 90-day session ends in about three weeks.
Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., in scathing remarks directed at Franchot and at a senior member of his staff, said the legislature will likely pass a bill to study removing the comptroller’s authority to tax and regulate the alcohol industry.
Miller, who said he had not talked to leaders in the House, also spoke in support of an effort to remove the Board of Public Works, of which Franchot is a member, from the process of awarding school construction funding. He blames the comptroller for provoking the legislation.
“I think (the House) wants to try to remove the politics from the Board of Public Works in terms of schools, where schools are built and where air conditioning goes and where heating goes,” said the longtime Senate leader and Franchot adversary. “It should be assigned and performed on the merits of the school and not the political party or regard to what person is running for what office and what political points are trying to be scored.”
The latest political shots are just the latest exchange between the longest-serving Senate president in state history and the comptroller. But it’s not the only tussle between Franchot and his fellow Democrats this year. Two leaders in the House, Appropriations Chairwoman Del. Maggie McIntosh, D-Baltimore, and Economic Matters Committee Chairman Del. Dereck E. Davis, D-Prince George’s, have both leveled sharp criticisms that led to legislative action against comptroller.
Miller’s eruption — the latest in a series directed at Franchot since he was elected in 2007 — has been building for some time.
Franchot, who was once known as the “Takoma Park Liberal,” has fashioned himself into a populist who often takes on issues such as air conditioning in public schools, post-Labor Day school starts, and expanding the state’s craft beer market.
But Franchot’s friendly “bro-show” relationship with Republican Gov. Larry Hogan as well as his pointed comments and actions on the Board of Public Works have angered fellow Democrats.
Still, the third-term comptroller remains publicly popular. He was the top vote-getter among statewide Democrats in 2014 and remains a top fundraiser. Franchot also appears set to win his fourth term as the top tax collector with no primary opponent and a relative unknown Republican opponent who ran as a write-in candidate in 2014.
Len Foxwell, Franchot’s chief of staff, said the comptroller’s work on the board is focused on oversight and making government entities accountable and provides a place where parents of schoolchildren can have their concerns heard and addressed.
“The comptroller is proud of what he and Governor Hogan have accomplished by working together on issues such as school maintenance and providing safe, healthy learning conditions in school systems such as Baltimore County and Baltimore City,” said Foxwell. “Progress is being made that only happened because of the leadership shown by the governor and the comptroller. That’s what Marylanders what to see from their government.”
‘Changes his colors’
Miller said Franchot’s brand of populism and “political grandstanding” has left Democratic lawmakers and other officials embarrassed and wondering what the comptroller stands for.
“When he was in the House he was an ultra-liberal from Takoma Park,” Miller said. “He’s just changed his spots.”
“Nobody wants to turn on him,” Miller added. “What we want to say is, ‘Be true to your own self. Have a core value about something and stick to what you believe in.’ (Franchot’s) nickname is chameleon cause he changes his colors. If they laid him on a plaid carpet he wouldn’t know where to go — red, blue, green, yellow — because he changes his colors each day to meet the tone of the day and to try to assist himself in the eyes of the voters. It’s too bad because it shouldn’t be like that. … I want a straight line. If he does that then things can be all well again.”
Foxwell defended Franchot, saying voters seem to like the comptroller’s style of government.
“If any of what the Senate president said was true, I suspect he would have had little trouble finding a credible candidate to challenge the comptroller in the 2018 primary. The fact that (Miller) tried to recruit a candidate for months if not for a year and came up short would suggest that Marylanders think the comptroller is doing a good job.”
In the past, Franchot has butted heads with Miller and other Democrats in epic budget battles that featured the Senate president eliminating the budgets for senior aides to the comptroller, including the salary for Foxwell.
Franchot and Democratic lawmakers continued their uneasy relationship this year.
Earlier this session, a House committee killed Franchot’s top legislative priority aimed at easing state laws he said make it difficult for the craft brewing industry to grow in Maryland.
Davis, the committee chairman, said members of his committee responded with bills gutting a 2017 law that eased some restrictions on craft brewers. Franchot’s staff called those moves “an extended middle finger” to the industry.
This week, McIntosh proposed changes to a bill aimed at modernizing how the state provides aid to build and maintain public schools. Her proposals would strip that authority from the Board of Public Works, a three-person panel – composed of the governor, comptroller and treasurer – that approves school construction projects.
McIntosh said her proposed changes were a response to Franchot’s injection of politics as a member of the board.
Miller, speaking to reporters Thursday, said he had not spoken to House leaders about the bill but sounded as if he was on board with the effort and even repeated some of McIntosh’s complaints about Franchot.
“All you have to do is look at Baltimore County and the politics of Baltimore County and see what a mess the situation is, with the comptroller trying to tell the county executive what schools need to get air conditioning, what schools need to get heating, what schools need to get rebuilt, regardless of what the board of education in Baltimore County says, regardless of what the county executive says, regardless of what the county council says,” said Miller. “Here’s a guy from Montgomery County who’s shameful in terms of playing upon the political feelings of the voters rather than what needs to be done. I think that’s where (the House’s) angst is. Not so much with the governor but with the comptroller.”
Foxwell said the continued efforts of the legislature to strip the Board of Public Works of its oversight over school construction funding is pure politics.
“Senator Miller’s desire to take the politics out of the school construction process is more than compromised by Chairwoman McIntosh’s admissions, on the record, that this is all about the comptroller,” said Foxwell. “If that’s not political, I don’t know what is. Frankly, we’re shocked that the legislature has time for such chicanery. I suspect Marylanders across the state are looking on with the same sense of bewilderment.”
Miller blamed the failure of Franchot’s craft beer effort on his abrasive social media push that angered many lawmakers and on Foxwell, Franchot’s chief of staff.
“(Foxwell) is a political talking puppet who says what he thinks will benefit his boss,” said Miller. “He’s the one who got the comptroller in the mess with regard to the craft beer situation.”
Foxwell fired back that Miller “perpetuates the corporate beer monopoly in this state.”
“We believe in supporting those craft brewers who are creating local jobs and building our local economy,” said Foxwell. “These are stark differences but they are not irreconcilable differences.”
Foxwell blamed the death of Franchot’s “Reform on Tap” bill on lawmakers on the House Economic Matters Committee and lobbyists for the licensed beverage industry.
Lawmakers on that committee held up a hearing until late on a Friday afternoon and then focused their anger on Franchot’s use of social media — primarily Facebook posts — that they said was disrespectful and unfairly portrayed them as villains.
“It had nothing to do with us,” Foxwell said of the defeat of the bill. “It was about the unseemly amount of power that (lobbyists) Jack Milani, Nick Manis and Steve Wise wield over the Economic Matters Committee. We’ll get there eventually because progress always wins in the end.”
Miller and lawmakers may not yet be done tweaking Franchot.
Miller, speaking to reporters Thursday, predicted that the legislature will pass a bill that authorizes a study to strip more authority from the Office of the Comptroller.
“Another bill I am certain will pass the House and Senate overwhelmingly is the bill to study whether the comptroller should even be allowed to oversee the alcohol industry,” said Miller. “That will pass the House and Senate overwhelmingly.