Franchot balks at transfer of oversight

Maryland comptroller calls it retaliation for casino stance

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Maryland Comptroller Peter V.R. Franchot says a bill that would remove some of his tax-collecting duties is political payback from Democratic leaders for his opposition to gambling.

Mr. Franchot, a Democrat, is irate over legislation that would reassign the tasks of regulating and collecting taxes on alcohol, tobacco and motor fuel from his office to the state’s Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation (DLLR).

Sponsors say the bill could cut costs, but Mr. Franchot argues it is a politically motivated response to his loud opposition to last summer’s passage of a bill that will allow table games at the state’s existing casinos and a new Prince George’s County casino.

“It is an obvious act of political retaliation for my independent stance on gambling and fiscal issues,” Mr. Franchot told The Washington Times. “Someone thinks this is a political game, but it has real-world consequences.”

Since taking office in 2007, Mr. Franchot has taken a more fiscally conservative tone than many Democrats and has clashed often with Gov. Martin O'Malley, leading to chilly interactions between the two Democrats at Board of Public Works meetings.

Elizabeth Myers, who runs the Maryland Legislative Watch project that monitors state government, is also casting a wary eye on the move.

Ms. Myers said transferring responsibilities from an elected comptroller into the hands of DLLR, which is headed by O'Malley appointee Secretary Leonard J. Howie III, could decrease government accountability and voter influence.

“The comptroller is elected by the people, and if we don’t think he’s a proper steward of the funds, we can just vote him out in four years,” she said. “We can’t do that under some secretary that just got appointed.”

The House version of the bill is sponsored by Delegate Dereck E. Davis, a Prince George’s Democrat and gambling supporter who is chairman of the House Economic Matters Committee, which will vet the tax legislation.

On the Senate side, the bill is sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Robert J. Garagiola, Montgomery Democrat and second-ranking Democrat to Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., the powerful Prince George’s Democrat who had a large hand in convincing the governor to call last summer’s special session.

A spokeswoman for DLLR said the agency is still reviewing the bill and does not yet have an opinion on it.

Mr. Franchot contends that DLLR is unlikely to improve on his office’s performance, and he argues that transitioning duties to another agency could bring added distraction and administrative costs rather than saving money.

“Even my harshest critics recognize that the agency is functioning at a very high level,” he said. “I’m not going to change. I’m going to be independent and I’m going to be a voice for taxpayers and citizens, and that’s why they elected me.”

Mr. Davis did not answer calls Monday requesting comment, but he told The Baltimore Sun last week that he proposed the bill simply as a cost-cutting measure and that he is still waiting on cost estimates before deciding whether to push the bill any further.

“I’m not married to it,” he said. “If it’s not fiscally prudent, we absolutely should abandon it.”

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