Comptroller Peter Franchot accused Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller yesterday of plotting to slash the tax collector's budget and eliminate two senior advisers as "political payback" for Franchot's outspoken opposition to slot machine gambling and a new tax on computer services.
Moments later, Miller dismissed Franchot's claims as an "outrageous" public relations stunt designed as a "pre-emptive strike" against necessary scrutiny of all state agency budgets. He attacked the comptroller as "an embarrassment to the state of Maryland."
The exchange was remarkably sharp, even for the famously outsized personalities of the two Democratic leaders, and it foreshadows a possibly contentious battle next week when legislative committees review the comptroller's budget for potential cuts.
Franchot acknowledged that his suspicions of "political retaliation" by Miller were "just rumors," but he said he began to worry last week when he heard rumblings "from high-placed insiders," whom he declined to name.
"I've been around Annapolis a lot, and when I hear the steady drumbeat of these rumors, I take them seriously," Franchot said. "The exact quote communicated back to me was that 'we're going to pistol whip your agency.'"
In addition to "draconian cuts" envisioned for his tax-collection agency, which has about 1,100 employees, Franchot said he believes Miller is targeting his chief of staff, David S. Weaver, and deputy comptroller, Len N. Foxwell, for elimination of their positions.
Weaver was communications director for former Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan. Foxwell was most recently the chief lobbyist for Salisbury University and for five years directed Washington-area transit programs for the state transportation department. But he has also acted as a spokesman for elected officials and political campaigns.
Weaver and Foxwell helped Franchot in his bid for the comptroller's office in 2006, and both are paid more than $150,000 a year, which puts them on par with some Cabinet secretaries and the top-paid members of the governor's staff.
Warren G. Deschenaux, chief fiscal analyst of the nonpartisan Department of Legislative Services, said his agency's analysis of the comptroller's budget will be sent to Franchot today. That analysis will form the basis of the General Assembly's evaluation of Franchot's budget, but the budget committees in the House and Senate are not limited to it.
Deschenaux declined to detail his office's recommendations, but he said of Franchot, "My sense is his concerns are overstated."
Last year, legislators cut his executive office budget by $300,000, more than Legislative Services suggested.
During the November special legislative session, legislators also voted to lessen Franchot's control over the Bureau of Revenue Estimates.
Miller aides said his office has not pressured Deschenaux to target Franchot's domain, and the Senate president said he would "adhere" to those recommendations and "not go above and beyond them."
As for Franchot's suggestion that two of his top three aides would be targeted for elimination, Miller said: "There is no single person going to be targeted on his staff. That's a promise."
Miller said Gov. Martin O'Malley's budget proposal needs to be cut further because of the state's weakening economy.
Last week, Franchot reported in a letter to Annapolis leaders his "great concern" over "surprisingly weak" sales tax revenue from December. Deschenaux said he thought tax revenue forecasts for 2008 and 2009 would be adjusted downward.
Franchot, a Montgomery County Democrat, angered party leaders last year when he opposed the convening of a special legislative session and railed against a proposed constitutional amendment that would let voters decide whether to legalize slots. More recently, he has called for the repeal of the computer services sales tax enacted during the special session.
The tax increases have been hugely unpopular in Maryland, according to polls, and Miller accused Franchot yesterday of taking fiscally irresponsible policy positions to further his political aspirations.
Miller called Franchot's office a "one-stop political shop" that has alienated the comptroller from the "entire General Assembly." "He recommends things that he thinks play well with the public, not that are in the best interest of the state," Miller said.
Franchot's budget "is padded with PR people who ... tell him how to get his name in the news," Miller said. "If he's got people pushing Peter Franchot instead of the state of Maryland, instead of collecting taxes, obviously the fiscal experts ... are going to make recommendations that they be eliminated."
Franchot defended his independent stance on controversial issues and said he would not be cowed into silence. He noted that he was chosen last week to receive a Distinguished Leadership Award from the Association of Government Accountants, honoring "excellence in government financial management," according to the association's Web site.
"It's OK for the legislature to oversee my budgets and ask the hard, tough questions," Franchot said. "It is not OK to attack for political reasons hard-working state employees ... simply because the Senate president doesn't like me personally or wants me to shut up about slots."
Franchot said major budget cuts could hurt his agency's ability to collect $20 billion in anticipated tax revenue this year.