- The Washington Times - Monday, September 5, 2011

Maryland Comptroller Peter V.R. Franchot made clear before taking office in 2007 that he would expand the job description beyond collecting taxes, paying the state’s bills and auditing its agencies, and he is living up to that promise.

Mr. Franchot, a Democrat, has been vocal on policy and legislation throughout his tenure. And he has become one of Annapolis’ most visible officials and one of its most polarizing among legislators.

The former Montgomery County delegate is widely expected to run for governor in 2014, and potential candidates already are lining up to take his place as comptroller - evidence, according to some, that he has significantly raised the position’s profile, making it more attractive to candidates than in the past.

“If Franchot demonstrates that this can be a steppingstone to the governor’s mansion, then you will see it in the future as an office that people are competing for and using to step up,” said Todd Eberly, the coordinator of public-policy studies at St. Mary’s College of Maryland.

While comptroller is one of Maryland’s three statewide, elected offices - along with governor and attorney general - it traditionally has not been a path to higher office. William Donald Schaefer, the former governor and four-term Baltimore mayor, preceded Mr. Franchot as comptroller during the twilight of his political career from 1999 to 2007, while Louis L. Goldstein held the office from 1959 until his death in 1998.

Goldstein was widely beloved for decades by colleagues and residents, while Schaefer’s tenure as comptroller is largely remembered for his controversial rants about Hispanic immigrants, women and AIDS patients, as well as his public fights with former Gov. Parris N. Glendening.

As just the state’s fourth comptroller since 1959, Mr. Franchot has stretched the role beyond overseeing state finances and serving on the three-member Board of Public Works, alongside the treasurer and governor.

Regarded as one of Maryland’s most liberal delegates from 1987 to 2007, he has established himself as a relative fiscal conservative in the Democrat-controlled state - often imploring legislators to cut spending and touting how his office has improved tax-collecting efficiency.

“In this era of high taxes, high spending and high borrowing, [residents] like the image of the comptroller as a penny pincher,” Mr. Franchot said last week in an interview with The Washington Times, adding that he considers his position “the second most important job in the state.”

“The Goldstein and Schaefer eras still live on, but I think I’ve taken the office to the next level,” he said.

Mr. Franchot also has spoken out on legislative issues, and early in his term clashed with Democratic leaders about whether to legalize slots parlors. Mr. Franchot opposed slots, famously referring to them as “the crack cocaine of gambling,” drawing the ire of arguably the state’s two most-powerful Democrats - Gov. Martin O’Malley and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller.

Mr. Miller and other critics have accused Mr. Franchot of overstepping his boundaries and weighing in on legislation - something they say Schaefer and Goldstein seldom did.

“I’ve always spoken out on issues that are important to Marylanders,” Mr. Franchot said. “For people that think the office should just be some division head within the executive branch, that’s just wrong.”

Maryland’s comptroller position is more relevant than those in other states, due largely to its inclusion on the Board of Public Works, Mr. Eberly said. The board oversees government infrastructure spending and also may approve mid-year budget cuts in the event of a revenue shortfall, as happened in 2009.

Several legislators have expressed interest in replacing Mr. Franchot if he runs for governor in 2014, including Delegate Galen R. Clagett, Frederick Democrat; Sen. James C. Rosapepe, Prince George’s Democrat, and House Majority Leader Kumar P. Barve, a Montgomery Democrat who has said unequivocally that he will run if the position is open.

Future comptrollers likely will bring more changes to the office, but it remains to be seen if any would be as vocal on general issues as Mr. Franchot.

“I think it’s important enough to stick to the financial,” Mr. Barve said. “There’s more than enough to opine on.”

Mr. Franchot is the first comptroller is memory who appears poised to use the position as a springboard to higher office, but Mr. Eberly said the job has qualities that could attract similar candidates in the future.

“The comptroller sits on [the Board of Public Works] and actually has real power,” he said. “It’s a post that can have its profile expanded.”

• David Hill can be reached at dhill@washingtontimes.com.

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