The comptroller takes a hit

Our view : Mr. Franchot must repair self-inflicted damage from overheated anti-slots crusade

November 10, 2008

With the passage of the slots referendum last week, Maryland Comptroller Peter Franchot dined on a big, cold wedge of humble pie last week that Gov. Martin O'Malley and some other Democrats were only too happy to serve. If the comptroller's relations with Mr. O'Malley, state Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller and others in Annapolis were frosty in the past, his behavior during the slots debate tossed them into the deep freeze.

It isn't that Mr. Franchot opposed slots. Plenty did. It isn't even that he was outspoken in the matter, raised large sums for anti-slots ads and traveled across the state to rail against them. Lawmakers are accustomed to his gadfly ways. The problem is he chose this argument as a central theme of his campaign: You can't trust those politicians in Annapolis who just raised your taxes by a record amount in tough times.

For the governor and Democratic lawmakers who perceive last year's special session vote in favor of a $1.4 billion tax package as a tough but necessary action to resolve a large, inherited budget deficit, the comptroller's pitch was about the most damaging - and intellectually dishonest - thing a fellow Democrat could say.

Would Mr. Franchot have preferred they had taken an ax to the state budget instead and lopped off a vital limb or two from core education and health care programs? Not likely. A card-carrying member of the party's liberal wing, he would have been among the first to cry foul.

So why did the comptroller choose to drop the rhetorical equivalent of a WMD on his own party? His aides say it was because the overheated argument on taxes "tested" strongest. It was the best way to change voter minds on slot machines.

It's fine for Mr. Franchot to act independently. Certainly, it's one of the reasons voters elected him to the statewide post in 2006. In this way, he's not unlike his predecessor, William Donald Schaefer. And pro-slots forces offered a lot of misleading claims as well.

But at some point, governance is a collaborative undertaking, and there are consequences to such injudicious behavior. Already, there's concern that the O'Malley administration may hold up the needed funds to update the comptroller's dated computer system, an important project for helping track down tax scofflaws.

Two wrongs don't make a right, but political payback is a time-honored tradition. If Mr. Franchot wants to fulfill his day job - as the state's elected tax collector - he's going to have to acquire some small measure of self-control.

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