Franchot wants to stretch reach of comptroller's office

New comptroller's vision may clash with tradition

December 10, 2006|By Andrew A. Green | Andrew A. Green,Sun reporter

Comptroller-elect Peter Franchot says he wants to take his new office beyond collecting taxes and balancing the state's books, and use his position to set a policy vision for the state, with stopping slot machines and boosting tobacco taxes the top items on his agenda.

The Montgomery County Democrat said he intends to use his new position to convince legislators that slot machines would harm the state's economic future and that raising the tobacco tax is the right way to pay for expanding Medicaid eligibility.

Franchot said in an interview with The Sun that the office he will take over next month has all the data needed to provide insightful analyses on slots, taxes and other issues.

He said he plans to call lawmakers to his office during the General Assembly session that begins Jan. 10, provide them lunch and show them PowerPoint demonstrations to back up his views.

"I campaigned as someone who has vision and values," said Franchot, a former state delegate who defeated Maryland political legend William Donald Schaefer in the primary. "People are thirsty for vision. ... I am going to give them a cohesive vision of the state's economic future, and I believe people will listen to it."

Traditionally, it is the governor and the legislature -- and in Maryland, where the executive's power is strong, mostly the governor -- who set the policy agenda for the state.

Gov.-elect Martin O'Malley, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller and House Speaker Michael E. Busch -- the triumvirate whose turf Franchot might find himself invading -- might have a thought or two in these areas.

The comptroller is the chief tax collector and the keeper of the state's books -- which Franchot said he considers his top priorities. The office-holder also is a member of the three-person state Board of Public Works, which approves most contracts. Some of the other power brokers in Annapolis suggest that he would be well advised to leave it at that.

Both Franchot and O'Malley say they intend to cooperate.

"We look forward to working with the comptroller-elect on many issues in the next four years," O'Malley spokesman Steve Kearney said.

"I will be a good team player with Governor O'Malley," Franchot said. "I support him, but I will be independent."

But a new, muscular role for the comptroller has the potential to ruffle feathers among Franchot's former legislative colleagues.

Miller is the most outspoken backer of slots in Annapolis, and he supported one of Franchot's opponents in the primary. He also has expressed major reservations about another top Franchot priority, increasing the tobacco tax to expand access to health care.

"I think that Comptroller Franchot has the opportunity to do an awful lot of good, but, for starters, he needs to focus on his office and understand the relationship of the comptroller to the governor as well as the General Assembly," Miller said. "The General Assembly is the policy-making branch of government."

Like Franchot, Busch is a slots opponent, but the speaker has been cool to the idea of the tobacco tax. He said the legislature's role is to set policy for the state, and it intends to fulfill it.

"We certainly welcome input from the comptroller's office," Busch said. "It's always healthy to get other points of view. It's also important for the comptroller to remember that the legislature does his office's budget."

Franchot is just the third person to hold the comptroller's job in the last 46 years, and he said he wants to put his own stamp on the institution. He said he sees the office's duties reaching into any area that affects the state's finances, an interpretation that could give him entree into nearly any policy debate he wants to engage in.

The agency's staff is full of veterans, many of whom served both Schaefer and his predecessor, longtime Comptroller Louis Goldstein. Franchot said he hopes to make only minimal personnel changes in the agency and to use its existing resources to play a wider role in the state.

"I'm going to copy Goldstein and be independent. I'm going to be a fiscal watchdog like Schaefer, and I'm also going to be a progressive like Peter Franchot," he said.

Schaefer spokesman Michael Golden said the current comptroller certainly used the office to voice his opinions on topics far and wide. Some of the highlights from Board of Public Works meetings included rants against immigrants, who don't speak English, AIDS victims, the Minority Business Enterprise Program and North Koreans.

"I think that what the comptroller was known for over the last eight years was using the Board of Public Works as a bully pulpit," Golden said. "Maybe not on the same topics as the comptroller-elect wants to, but certainly the incumbent made his feelings known."

(Schaefer also advocated for some measures in the legislature, but they generally had to do with taxes -- such as requiring firms that create shell companies in Delaware to pay their fair share of taxes in the state.)

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