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Maryland comptroller blasts bill stripping his authority over the state's alcohol, tobacco and gas industries

Maryland Comptroller Peter Franchot blasted bills Tuesday that would strip away his office’s enforcement powers and limit the types of campaign donations he can accept.

Franchot said the bills were vindictive measures that are not in the best interest of Marylanders.

“It’s recrimination against me for being an advocate for small, family-owned craft brewers in Maryland,” Franchot, a Democrat, told reporters.

Franchot is both the state’s chief tax collector and the regulator of the alcohol, tobacco and fuel industries in Maryland. He considers himself a champion of the state’s growing craft beer industry, after jumping on its side two years ago when Guinness proposed changes to alcohol laws to accommodate its new brewery in Halethorpe.

Franchot sits on the powerful state Board of Public Works, where he has frequently sided with Republican Gov. Larry Hogan on contracts and other matters, often to the dismay of Democrats.

The bills targeting Franchot are sponsored by Sen. Ben Kramer, a Montgomery County Democrat. He couldn’t be reached by phone Tuesday for comment.

One bill would create a state commission to oversee regulation of alcohol, gasoline and tobacco, taking over functions currently carried out by agents and inspectors in the field enforcement division of the comptroller’s office. The division investigates complaints of illegal sales of alcohol and cigarettes, for example.

Establishing a new state commission was a recommendation this month of a task force created by the General Assembly to study the state’s liquor laws.

Franchot said moving enforcement to a new agency would be expensive and result in less rigorous enforcement, a change that “serves the interest of Big Oil and Big Tobacco.” There’s been no estimate offered for how much it would cost to create the new commission.

Franchot also blasted legislation that would prohibit the comptroller from accepting campaign contributions of more than $100 from individuals or companies “associated with the alcohol, tobacco or motor fuel industry.” Franchot has about $1.6 million in the bank and acknowledges that he accepts donations from industries he regulates.

Franchot said Kramer has a conflict of interest because he “has alcohol payments put into his pocket each month.” Kramer co-owns commercial properties, including one that leases space to a Montgomery County Department of Liquor Control store.

The state senator told Bethesda Magazine on Tuesday that his ties to the retail property aren’t relevant to the bill on how Maryland regulates alcohol because the legislation doesn’t have anything to do with the county’s liquor monopoly.

“What is the relationship between that and this legislation, other than a red herring to create some sort of impression?” Kramer told the magazine.

Franchot also complained General Assembly leaders refused to introduced bills he requested to reform the brewing industry and to offer incentives to bars and restaurants to sell only Maryland-made alcohol.

The House of Delegates speaker, the Senate president or committee leaders often introduce bills requested by the governor and by state departments, such as the comptroller’s office. Members of the General Assembly can also file bills on behalf of a state agency.

Del. Dereck Davis, chairman of the House Economic Matters Committee, declined to introduce Franchot’s bills in the House, while the office of state Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller said it had not received a request from Franchot to submit legislation.

Davis said Franchot has not been a “partner” in discussing alcohol legislation with lawmakers.

“I don’t owe the comptroller a damn thing,” Davis, a Prince George’s County Democrat, told reporters.

Jake Weissmann, chief of staff to Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., said Franchot has not discussed his ideas with Miller, either.

“The comptroller and the president have not spoken since opening day, and that was just an exchange of pleasantries,” Weissmann said.

The General Assembly has deadlines this week for bills to be introduced in time to follow the normal review process by lawmakers. Bills introduced later can still be considered and passed, but they face extra procedural hurdles.

pwood@baltsun.com

twitter.com/pwoodreporter

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