Bryan P. Sears//January 7, 2019
//January 7, 2019
ANNAPOLIS — Maryland’s comptroller could continue to collect taxes on alcohol but could see his enforcement role over liquor retail operations diminished under a set of recommendations headed to the legislature in the coming weeks.
The recommendations, which include the creation of a new agency to regulate and enforce alcohol laws as well as tobacco and motor fuel regulations, are part of dozens of proposed recommendations approved Monday. The task force, created by the legislature last session, finalized its work Monday in advance of the 2019 General Assembly Session that begins Wednesday.
Del. Warren Miller, R-Howard and Carroll and a co-sponsor of the legislation that created the task force, said the work was an attempt to review public health concerns and other issues related to the alcohol industry in the state.
“Sadly, for a long time we haven’t dealt with the public health aspect,” Miller said. “All we’ve had are the bills that say ‘we want to have more places to serve alcohol.’ It’s not about the politics. It’s about a better way to regulate alcohol.”
The recommendations are not binding on the General Assembly.
Miller said many will find their way into legislation along with some that perhaps were not discussed by the task force.
“The whole process is purely shambolic,” said Len Foxwell, chief of staff to Comptroller Peter Franchot. “If these recommendations become law, Maryland taxpayers will pay millions of dollars to subsidize Mike Busch and Mike Miller’s grudge against Peter Franchot.”
Included in the proposed recommendations are rules barring the comptroller from accepting donations from entities associated with alcohol, tobacco and motor fuel — all industries regulated by the Office of the Comptroller.
The vast majority of the recommendations sought to address public health and education issues involving alcohol. More than two dozen of the proposed changes came from public health officials who have previously expressed desires to further restrict alcohol sales and increases taxes.
The task force was created last year through legislation sponsored by Miller and Del. Ben Kramer, D-Montgomery. At the time, the comptroller and others characterized the panel as a group intent on punishing Franchot for being an outspoken advocate for the craft beer industry and for antagonizing lawmakers in committee rooms and on social media.
Miller and Kramer, who at times have chided Franchot, also attempted to deflect criticisms that the panel was a retaliatory strike against the state’s top tax collector and chief intra-party irritant of the leaders of the Democratic majority in the legislature.
The meatiest of the accepted recommendations call on the legislature to remove regulatory oversight of alcohol, tobacco, motor fuel from the Office of the Comptroller and place it either in an independent agency or under the auspices of another department. Tobacco and motor fuel were not originally part of the mandate of the committee, and the panel did not take testimony on either issue.
Foxwell called the concern about campaign donations “faux pearl clutching.” He noted that lawmakers have deep ties to the industry and that the Speaker of the House’s campaign treasurer works in the industry.
“It just illustrates how deep the tentacles of the alcohol industry extend in this town,” said Foxwell.
Members of the panel noted that recent federal corruption cases have involved lawmakers who sought to influence liquor laws.
Dels. Michael Vaughn and William Campos, both Prince George’s County Democrats, were caught up in an investigation into bribery involving their home county’s liquor board. Vaughn was convicted of bribery and Campos pleaded guilty.
A majority of the panel voted to bar elected officials across the state from accepting campaign donations from licensed beverage industry. The original proposal would have merely barred the comptroller from such contributions.
D. Bruce Poole, chair of the panel, said that while he does not question the integrity of Franchot, the public likely raises its collective eyebrows over the idea that the alcohol industry is tapped for donations by those who regulate the industry.
Maryland’s craft brewing industry has also submitted a number of recommendations for consideration, including affirming that the current enforcement and regulatory system has worked well and asking for the fiscal impact of new regulatory or enforcement agencies outside the comptroller’s office.
The final draft, due to the legislature in the coming weeks, recommends more public health awareness campaigns related to alcohol use and an increase in the number of inspectors.
A recommendation to adopt commercial liability for bars restaurants under a dram shop law was rejected. Such legislation has historically been controversial in Annapolis, and members of the task force said they had not spent enough time discussing the issue.