Battle on comptroller's powers centers on regulation, health

Published 02-21-2019

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ANNAPOLIS, Md. (AP) - Comptroller Peter Franchot stepped up the defense of his office's regulatory powers on Thursday, saying a measure to transfer that authority over alcohol, tobacco and gasoline to a state commission would be costly and unnecessary.

But supporters of the bill say the changes are a needed update to better protect residents against health concerns related to alcohol.

The comptroller and the bipartisan sponsors of the measure held dueling news conferences in an ongoing battle between Franchot, a Democrat, and leaders in the Democrat-controlled General Assembly, who have been at odds with him politically. Franchot is casting himself as a reformer who has angered powerful lawmakers he accuses of being influenced by lobbyists for big businesses due to his support for the small craft brewing industry.

"It's political retribution at the behest of economic interests that want to protect their market share," Franchot said.

Franchot cited a report from the state's Bureau of Revenue Estimates that estimated the change could cost taxpayers nearly $50 million over the next five years. The report also describes how removing regulation from the comptroller's office would strip access to sensitive tax information, which is fundamental to its enforcement power. The report also cited potential disruption of tobacco enforcement policies that could jeopardize hundreds of millions of dollars in tobacco settlement money over five years.

Supporters of the legislation, which was a result of recommendations of a state task force, noted that Franchot also accepts money from alcohol interests. They say Maryland is one of only three states in the nation that has alcohol regulation and enforcement authority in the office of an elected official.

"So with passage of this legislation, we will be putting Maryland in the same posture as the overwhelming majority of the other states in the country," said Sen. Ben Kramer, a Montgomery County Democrat who is a bill sponsor.

Bruce Poole, who chaired the task force that made recommendations for changes, said health concerns relating to alcohol are growing and need to be addressed. He said while the field enforcement division is doing a good job, the number of alcohol distribution outlets has increased significantly, and the number of field enforcement positions has not kept pace.

"You can't expect the same number of people to be able to go out and do effective enforcement against an ever-growing number of alcohol outlets," Poole said.

Jeff Kelly, the director of the Field Enforcement Division in the comptroller's office, emphasized that no one has criticized the work of his office.

"This legislation seems like a solution in search

"So with passage of this legislation, we will be putting Maryland in the same posture as the overwhelming majority of the other states in the country," said Sen. Ben Kramer, a Montgomery County Democrat who is a bill sponsor.

Bruce Poole, who chaired the task force that made recommendations for changes, said health concerns relating to alcohol are growing and need to be addressed. He said while the field enforcement division is doing a good job, the number of alcohol distribution outlets has increased significantly, and the number of field enforcement positions has not kept pace.

"You can't expect the same number of people to be able to go out and do effective enforcement against an ever-growing number of alcohol outlets," Poole said.

Jeff Kelly, the director of the Field Enforcement Division in the comptroller's office, emphasized that no one has criticized the work of his office.

"This legislation seems like a solution in search of a problem," Kelly said.

Supporters of the bill who spoke in favor of the legislation Thursday included Lisa Spicknall, the executive director of Mothers Against Drunk Driving in Maryland, as well as Rich Leotta, the father of Noah Leotta, a 24-year-old Montgomery County police officer who was killed by a drunk driver during a traffic stop. They said Maryland needs to take a more comprehensive approach to regulating alcohol.

"We need to get the politics out of it," Leotta said.

"You can't expect the same number of people to be able to go out and do effective enforcement against an ever-growing number of alcohol outlets," Poole said.

Jeff Kelly, the director of the Field Enforcement Division in the comptroller's office, emphasized that no one has criticized the work of his office.

"This legislation seems like a solution in search of a problem," Kelly said.

Supporters of the bill who spoke in favor of the legislation Thursday included Lisa Spicknall, the executive director of Mothers Against Drunk Driving in Maryland, as well as Rich Leotta, the father of Noah Leotta, a 24-year-old Montgomery County police officer who was killed by a drunk driver during a traffic stop. They said Maryland needs to take a more comprehensive approach to regulating alcohol.

"We need to get the politics out of it," Leotta said.

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