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With the state budget ailing from COVID-19, Maryland’s comptroller is about to get his mettle tested | COMMENTARY

The Maryland Board of Public Works, which is comprised of, from left, Treasurer Nancy Kopp, Gov. Larry Hogan and Comptroller Peter Franchot, will determine how state government keeps its budget in balance as revenues continue to fall sharply during the pandemic - at least until the state legislature reconvenes which is most likely not until January. (AP Photo/Brian Witte)
The Maryland Board of Public Works, which is comprised of, from left, Treasurer Nancy Kopp, Gov. Larry Hogan and Comptroller Peter Franchot, will determine how state government keeps its budget in balance as revenues continue to fall sharply during the pandemic - at least until the state legislature reconvenes which is most likely not until January. (AP Photo/Brian Witte) (Brian Witte/AP)

There is no drive-through testing to determine candidates’ fitness for office. No swab or temperature that can be taken to figure out what’s going on inside. And it doesn’t take a physician to recognize that such individuals are unreliable at self-diagnosis: Politicians make all kinds of promises in the fever of campaigns that fade once they are tucked away in some comfortable public office. So it’s worth observing when a valid screening suddenly presents itself, a seemingly foolproof way to determine exactly where a candidate stands, what that person believes, what his core values may be.

Marylanders, we give you Comptroller Peter Franchot, potential swing vote on the Board of Public Works and announced candidate for governor in 2022. Beginning this Wednesday when the Board is expected to take up the first round of budget cuts to be proposed by Gov. Larry Hogan totaling $672 million, the 72-year-old former state delegate from Montgomery County will get his chance to put an imprint on state government rarely made available to anyone not elected governor. The three-member panel will be asked to make the difficult choice of determining exactly what to cut from state government to keep the budget in balance as tax collections continue to fall in response to the economic recession wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic.

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Some decisions will be relatively easy. Tapping the state’s surplus funds including the “rainy day” account specifically set up for such emergencies and even a certain number of layoffs and salary reductions seem inevitable. But the real challenge will be in the details. Will state workers be treated compassionately and fairly? Will essential services like health and education and the social safety net be preserved? What will the impact be on local governments (will, for example, the BPW choose the politically expedient path of clawing back local aid and leaving county and municipal governments high and dry)? Governor Hogan and Democratic leaders of the Maryland General Assembly who are represented on the board by Treasurer Nancy Kopp have often been at odds over such priorities in the past; where does Comptroller Franchot stand?

For years, Mr. Franchot has presented himself as something of a populist untethered to his own political party, particularly to legislative leaders whom he regularly condemns while praising the state’s Republican governor. His overarching philosophy might best be described as opportunism. He has focused far more of his attention on the soft target of school air conditioning than on the more elusive goal of higher quality classroom instruction, more on starting school after Labor Day than how to deal with the pandemic or police violence against African Americans or social inequities generally. He is surely no Republican in Democratic clothing. He has been critical of President Donald Trump and recently passed up the chance to freeze Maryland’s minimum wage. Yet he’s also positioned himself as a centrist and a fiscal conservative. Are those qualities what Democratic primary voters are hungering for in their next governor, or is he just counting on moderate rural voters to get him past a potentially crowded field of left-leaning alternatives?

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The Board of Public Works can’t raise taxes, it can only cut spending up to 25% of the budget. So some choices that might seem more attractive than “draconian” cuts such as a temporary millionaire surcharge won’t be available until the General Assembly reconvenes in January. Yet there are all sorts of opportunities for Mr. Franchot to align himself with Ms. Kopp and set priorities that might differ from Mr. Hogan’s. He might, for example, insist on a sliding scale of employee furloughs that spare the lower-paid staff who can ill-afford a diminished paycheck but require more from those bringing home six-figure salaries, as Gov. Martin O’Malley once did. That would surely be preferable to permanent salary cuts. He might declare K-12 spending sacrosanct. He might call for raiding the state’s real estate transfer tax revenues that currently go toward buying land, a move that won’t endear him toward environmentalists but is probably necessary in a record downturn.

Make no mistake, cutting government budgets is never easy and seldom, if ever, raises a politician’s approval rating. More likely, it angers constituents of whatever special interest gets the short end of the stick. But members of the Board of Public Works, and Mr. Franchot in particular, have a unique opportunity to truly decide where the taxpayers’ money should be spent. What’s an essential service and what is not? When you are reducing spending by potentially hundreds of millions of dollars at a time, what you truly believe is the proper role of government soon becomes apparent.

The Baltimore Sun editorial board — made up of Opinion Editor Tricia Bishop, Deputy Editor Andrea K. McDaniels and writer Peter Jensen — offers opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. It is separate from the newsroom.

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