The most telling thing about the joint appearances Maryland's Republican Gov.-elect, Larry Hogan, and its Democratic Comptroller, Peter Franchot, had in Easton this week was that it was a case of Mr. Hogan tagging along with Mr. Franchot, not the other way around. Mr. Hogan is about to inherit tremendous power as Maryland governor — the state is considered to have among the most executive-dominated governments in the nation — and he will be inundated with supplicants seeking favors. But as he no doubt has realized, his relationship with the comptroller is one of very, very few in which he will not inherently have the upper hand.
By virtue of the dynamics of the Board of Public Works, there will be times when the governor's success will depend on the cooperation of the comptroller but very few in which the opposite is true. That panel, which must approve state contracts, among other things, conducts most of its business as a matter of routine, and there's no reason to think that would change during the Hogan administration. But controversies erupt on the board with some regularity, and Mr. Franchot, who has spent the last eight years as a voice of dissent to the O'Malley administration, usually in vain, will now have the chance to become the swing vote between Mr. Hogan and Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp, who is appointed by the Democrat-controlled legislature.
The last time Maryland encountered a similar situation, then-Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. openly plied then-Comptroller William Donald Schaefer with flattery, a steady supply of cakes from the Government House kitchen and — when really desperate — guest appearances at Board of Public Works meetings by Kendel Ehrlich. But don't expect Mr. Franchot to be swayed so easily. He is among the canniest political operators in Annapolis, and he has spent the last eight years developing a portfolio of priorities beyond the effective and efficient collection of taxes. He'll now have a governor who will have to pay attention to his Board of Public Works monologues and interrogatories rather than surreptitiously check his phone under the table.
Given that Mr. Franchot has established himself in his current post as a conservative on fiscal issues and that Mr. Hogan ran on a platform of curtailing spending and taxes, the two would seem natural allies. And on some matters, like procurement reform, they probably will be. Should Mr. Hogan seek to make mid-year cuts to the state's budget through board action — as he may well be required to do — he'll probably be able to count on a second vote from the comptroller. Adroit though he has been at re-invention, it would be difficult at this point for Mr. Franchot to revert back to his past as a Takoma Park liberal. But the history of the Board of Public Works during the O'Malley administration demonstrates just how wide reaching the panel's influence is in the operations of government and just how much potential remains for Mr. Franchot to maneuver.
During that time, the board has been called upon to approve high-profile public-private partnerships, including the redevelopment of State Center, renovations of the I-95 travel plazas and upgrades to the Seagirt Marine Terminal. Mr. Franchot was a skeptic on all three. Would a Republican administration seek more such deals, as has been the case in other states? The board has touched on environmental policy through green building practices, establishment of criteria for land preservation and the decisions on whether to issue permits for a Four Seasons development on Kent Island and a liquefied natural gas export terminal. In most of those cases, Mr. Franchot has sided with environmentalists. Early indications from the Hogan transition suggest he may be less devoted to that cause than the comptroller is. Mr. Franchot has also been an outspoken supporter of ensuring opportunities in the procurement process for minority-owned firms. Will Mr. Hogan be?
Some are already speculating that Mr. Franchot has his eye on taking Mr. Hogan's job in four years. We have our doubts about that. Mr. Franchot seems to be relishing his role as comptroller, and the voters, who gave him an even bigger margin this year than in 2010, seem to like him in that job as well. But Mr. Hogan had best not get too comfortable. Mr. Franchot's position affords him the unique ability to pick his battles with little fear of repercussions. He can be a powerful ally to the new governor or a potent foe, and it's probably going to take more than a few shopping trips to Easton to make sure it's the former.