In Annapolis, how about a beer timeout?

A year after the Maryland General Assembly passed regulatory reforms intended to help craft breweries grow, a debate over beer is set to be renewed on Friday. But while last year's discussions were focused on Guinness' plans for a Baltimore County brewery, this time, the goal is less clear.

In the State House, failed legislation is sometimes referred to as being “dead,” meaning it lost in a close vote or got tucked in a chairman’s pocket, or as “dead-dead,” which usually means it got publicly eviscerated, shot, stabbed and burned at the stake to the point where resurrection just isn’t possible. Then there’s what happened to Comptroller Peter Franchot’s latest venture to rewrite regulations governing craft brewers. His “Reform on Tap” bill not only died at the hands of a House committee by a lopsided, 17-4, it spawned bipartisan legislation creating a task force to study whether the comptroller should be trusted with regulating the alcohol industry that was approved by the full House on Monday, 128-10.

Such a reversal of fortune may require a whole new nomenclature, perhaps dead-dead-dead to describe a bill that wasn’t just wholly rejected and trampled upon but whose sponsor was targeted with adverse legislation. Mr. Franchot and his supporters will no doubt come out swinging over all this. They’ll decry lawmakers as being in the pockets of the big beer producers and distributors — and there’s no doubt of the alcohol industry’s clout in Annapolis. But that doesn’t tell the whole story. Throughout the process, Mr. Franchot has gleefully stepped on the toes of the people whose votes he would need to achieve his policy goals, so much so that many question whether he’s more interested in selling his anti-establishment brand rather than actually helping craft brewers navigate through the often treacherous — and difficult for newcomers to understand — waters of the General Assembly.


The tragedy here is not that Mr. Franchot got embarrassed. The reality is that he probably wasn’t much hurt at all by seeing his bill deep-sixed. Picking a fight with Democratic leaders in Annapolis has become his stock in trade. In that regard, a loss is as good as a victory. Although still a Democrat (and one who served in the House himself), Mr. Franchot can complain that Democratic leaders are anti-business and corporate captives and that only he, with his populist messaging and close working relationship with Maryland’s Republican governor, can offer independent, middle-of-the-road leadership. It’s an effective strategy. The incumbent comptroller faces no Democratic challenger this year, and the single Republican who entered the race, Anjali Reed Phukan, received all of 595 votes when she ran for the post as a write-in candidate four years ago.

No, the real tragedy is that the craft brewers have a point. Maryland’s three-tier system of regulating alcohol producers, distributors and retailers is something of a complicated mess, its shortcomings numerous enough to fill this newspaper for a week. One of those problems is that it has failed to accommodate the evolving craft brew industry. Public tastes have changed, and small breweries with their own quasi-taverns have become all the rage. Last year, state lawmakers amended the law to allow Baltimore County to attract a Guinness production facility and taproom in Arbutus. The company can sell up to 2,000 barrels of beer there. Smaller operators got the same deal. But if brewers exceed that limit, they’ll have to buy their own beer from a distributor. How crazy is that?

We’re no fans of the way the traditional big players in the alcohol industry have historically dominated the debate in Annapolis and bent regulations to their own benefit. If anything, we think Mr. Franchot’s policy proposals don’t go far enough; reformers need to be looking beyond the interests of the craft brewers and to the state of alcohol regulation in general.

We acknowledge, though, that lawmakers have reasons beyond campaign contributions to consider the point of view of the powerful distributor and retailer lobbies. Those industries employ a lot of Marylanders, too, and as is so often the case in Annapolis, the question is not pro-business or anti-business but pro-which-business. What we need is a sober (so to speak) conversation about where consumer preferences are heading and whether our laws and regulations are properly positioned to take advantage of that while safeguarding public health. Right now they aren’t.

The craft beer industry and, though somewhat forgotten in the current debate, craft wineries are on the rise even as sales of mass-market beer decline.The presence of such tourist attractions is good for Maryland’s economy far beyond the beer industry. And brewery jobs are well-paid, low-entry and highly sought after. Breweries, wineries and distilleries are the second-fastest growing manufacturing sector in the U.S. over the last year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. There are eight times as many breweries in this country then there were a decade ago. Shouldn’t we be able to get past whether Mr. Franchot is popular or unpopular in Annapolis to make sure Maryland is getting its piece of that action?

There’s got to be room for compromise — with more foam in the glass and less foaming at the mouth. The idea of stripping the comptroller’s office of its role in overseeing the alcohol industry — and hence throwing out decades of experience in doing so — is entirely a function of a perception that Mr. Franchot has ceased to be a neutral regulator and has become a policy advocate for one segment of the industry. And while we understand that craft brewers, who rightly see themselves as underdogs, are delighted to have so full-throated a champion as Mr. Franchot, we’d bet a case of Duckpin Pale Ale that they could can achieve more in Annapolis at this point without him.