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Comptroller Franchot, Maryland lawmakers tangle over how to best enforce state's alcohol laws

An ongoing dispute over regulating the alcohol industry in Maryland bubbled up Thursday, with the state’s comptroller and lawmakers offering dueling views of a bill that would change how liquor laws are enforced.

Comptroller Peter Franchot said a proposal to move his inspectors and investigators to a new, independent commission was political payback for his decision to side with local craft brewers instead of “out-of-state beer cartels.”

This is reckless, costly, unnecessary, a political stunt and an act of retribution,” Franchot said during a news conference at his Annapolis office. “People say, ‘Why are they upset with you?’ They’re upset with me because I led a reform effort to modernize the antique, out-of-date beer laws that apply to our craft brewers alone.”

An hour later, the sponsors of the bill defended their plan as one that is responsible and will give greater emphasis to the public health and public safety effects of alcohol use.

Maryland is one of three states that has an elected official overseeing alcohol enforcement.

“Forty-seven states long ago got rid of elected representatives to regulate alcohol. We should join those 47 states,” said Del. Warren Miller, a Howard County Republican who is sponsoring the legislation with Sen. Ben Kramer, a Montgomery County Democrat.

Miller and Kramer’s bills would create an Alcohol, Tobacco and Motor Fuel Commission to oversee a field enforcement division that’s currently part of the comptroller’s office. The commission would also be charged with educating people about the dangers of alcohol, requiring better labeling of alcohol content, studying other states’ alcohol laws and developing “a public health impact statement” for proposed changes to state alcohol laws.

Kramer, who spoke with Miller at their own news conference, said the proposal came from a task force the General Assembly created last year to study Maryland’s liquor laws.

They dismissed the contention that the legislation is as an attack on Franchot. Miller said his focus is on public health and safety.

“We’re not here to throw a temper tantrum like the guy down the street,” he said.

“There has been a lot of misinformation and a lot of false information coming from the comptroller’s office with regard to this legislation,” Kramer said.

Kramer pointed to Franchot’s assertion that the bill would create $50 million in additional costs to the state over the next 10 years. Kramer said Franchot’s estimate should be taken “with a very healthy grain of salt.”

An analysis by the nonpartisan Department of Legislative Services found that it would cost $4 million in the first year to establish the commission and move the field investigators. After that, the state would face about $700,000 each year in increased expenses.

Franchot said his team of officers could find their jobs in jeopardy if the bill is passed.

Their “lives will be disrupted through this political stunt,” Franchot said. “This team of highly decorated and skilled law enforcement officers deserve the gratitude of all Marylanders.’

Jeffrey A. Kelly, director of the field enforcement division, said he’s heard no concerns about the performance of his employees. He said Franchot’s directive has been to “be firm, be fair and be right.”

“These people are wondering: Am I going to have a job in a few months?” Kelly said. “My colleagues haven’t known what’s going to happen to them for six months or more. That’s just not fair.”

Committees in the House of Delegates and the state Senate will consider the legislation Friday afternoon. The committees also will discuss other alcohol-related bills, including proposals to allow more beer to be sold at brewery taprooms, to make it easier for small brewers to end contracts with distributors and to create a fund to award grants on beer research and promotion.

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