- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 19, 2008

ANNAPOLIS — State budget analysts yesterday recommended cutting $770,000 from Comptroller Peter Franchot’s budget amid criticisms that his recent hirings were meant more to advance his political career than his constitutional duty to collect taxes.

“The comptroller should be prepared to explain the necessity of the staff and salary changes …and how it furthers the office’s goal of promoting prompt collection of state revenues,” the analysts said.

Mr. Franchot recently said he thinks Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. is planning to take political retribution on him by stripping two of three deputy comptrollers from the budget.

Mr. Franchot, a Democrat, has frequently disagreed with the leaders of the Democrat-controlled General Assembly and Gov. Martin O’Malley, a Democrat.

“The confusion here comes in part, that some observers see my agency simply as a part of the governor’s Cabinet,” Mr. Franchot yesterday told members of the House Appropriations Committee. “I view these three [deputy comptrollers] as the key personnel in charge of helping me run this complicated agency, not as assistant secretaries in a Cabinet office under the governor.”

Mr. Franchot has been critical of some state land deals, the O’Malley plan to approve slot-machine gambling to generate state revenue and the special General Assembly session Mr. O’Malley called in November to resolve at state budget shortfall estimated to be at least $1.5 billion.

House lawmakers yesterday were generally easy in their questioning of Mr. Franchot and his aides, though the comptroller is expected to go before a less friendly audience of Senate lawmakers this afternoon.

Mr. Franchot’s three deputy comptrollers earn $151,000 each, more than Mr. Franchot, the governor or many Cabinet secretaries. However, they make less than other state employees, including some who make at least twice as much as Mr. Franchot’s aides.

For example, the chancellor for the University System of Maryland, William E. “Brit” Kirwan, makes more than $350,000 a year.

Mr. Franchot feared the two deputies — Len Foxwell, a former lobbyist for Salisbury University, and David Weaver, a spokesman for former Montgomery County Executive Doug Duncan when he ran against Mr. O’Malley in the 2006 Democratic primary — were being target for removal by Mr. Miller, Southern Maryland Democrat.

Mr. Franchot was prodded by the chairman of subcommittee examining his agency before he broached the topic of pay.

“You did not say anything in your comments about the salaries of the different deputies,” said Delegate Charles E. Barkley, Montgomery Democrat, before Mr. Franchot began talking about the challenges of attracting well-paid talent to state government.

Rumors swirled in Annapolis that Mr. Miller was leaning on nonpartisan analysts to suggest firing Mr. Weaver and Mr. Foxwell — similar to the practice former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Republican, was criticized for during his first two years in office. One message Mr. Franchot said was relayed back to him was that Mr. Miller planned to “pistol-whip” his office.

Mr. Franchot fought with O’Malley budget secretary T. Eloise Foster last year over increased salaries for his deputies before she conceded, though his public relationship with Mr. O’Malley generally has been professional.

Mr. Miller has frequently criticized Mr. Franchot and his office, calling it a “one-stop politics shop” and the comptroller an “embarrassment to the state of Maryland.”

However, he made a point of saying last week that he would not seek budget cuts beyond what state budget analysts recommended.

The Assembly has the ability to cut from the budget what the governor submits each January, but cannot increase spending.

The Department of Legislative Services, a nonpartisan group of policy analysts and bill-drafters who report to the Assembly, report on each state agency and recommend cuts.

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