Franchot Seeks Hogan’s Help After Last-Minute Legislative Attack

Much of the considerable acrimony between Comptroller Peter V.R. Franchot (D) and the General Assembly played out in public view during the just-concluded legislative session, but lawmakers saved one last swipe at the state’s tax collector for the chaotic moments just before adjournment. A small, under-the-radar bill to alter the process for administering an oath to members of the State Retirement and Pension System Board of Trustees was amended late on the session’s final day to mandate that the state treasurer chair the 15-member panel. Currently, the law is silent on who chairs the panel. Rather, Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp and others say, there is an unwritten practice dating back decades, in which the more senior constitutional officer on the board — the treasurer or the comptroller — controls the gavel. If Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) signs the bill, Franchot, currently the vice-chair, would remain the No. 2, even if the 74-year-old Kopp were to retire next year, a persistent rumor in Annapolis. The legislature’s Sine Die shot at Franchot came on the same day that he attended a rally outside the State House at which he told reporters that he planned to actively campaign against the legislature’s presiding officers, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) and House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel), in the upcoming primary. Comptroller Peter V.R. Franchot lending his support at an Annapolis rally calling for the defeat of Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. Photo by Bruce DePuyt Franchot’s pledge of opposition (his campaign war-chest is flush with cash and he sails into the primary without an opponent) came at the tail end of a session where the Board of Public Works, on which he serves, was stripped of its role in doling out school construction funds. Another legislative priority — reform of the state’s liquor laws — was torched by seemingly gleeful lawmakers. In a letter, Franchot asks Hogan, a frequent ally, to veto the measure. “Having served as Vice-Chairman of the Trustees now for more than 11 years,” he wrote, “I find it offensive and deeply troubling that our state’s legislative leaders – none of which have even bothered to attend a meeting of the Trustees during my tenure of service – would exercise its [sic] prerogatives in such an irresponsible manner.” “This is the body of government that is entrusted with the survivor, disability and retirement benefits of nearly 400,000 active and retired public employees, and is responsible for guaranteeing that the necessary assets are available to fund these lawful benefits at the appropriate time.” The amendment stipulating who serves as pension board chair was amended in the House at the request of the Appropriations Committee on April 9. SB 178 was approved 139-0 and returned to the Senate. The Senate’s subsequent handling of the matter appeared to omit a portion of the usual process – the part where the floor leader explains how the bill was altered across the hall. For starters, Miller appeared to have difficulty locating the floor leader.  Miller: “Folks, this is Message No. 34, two bills out of Budget and Tax. Budget and Tax, Mr. Chairman.” Reading clerk: “Senate Bill 178, Senator Guzzone, State Retirement and Pension System Board of Trustees — Oath.” Miller: “Budget and Tax. Mr. Chairman? Budget and Tax. Two bills. 178.  Unidentified persons then talk off-mic. After a pause, the sponsor of the bill, Senate Majority Whip Guy J. Guzzone (D-Howard), the sponsor of the original bill, steps up. “I can do it. OK. Thank you, Mr. President.” Then, sounding like someone who is stifling laughter, he says, “We move to concur with the House amendments.” He does not elaborate. After another brief pause, Miller speaks: “Alright, the question — shall the Senate concur in the House amendments.” No one objected, and the measure sailed through, 46-0, at 9:49 p.m.  Sen. Guy J. Guzzone  In an interview, Guzzone said he wasn’t aware that the chairmanship of the panel has traditionally been decided on seniority. “This discussion on the Senate side didn’t occur,” he conceded. “We didn’t have, at that point, that information. My understanding was really.. that it was something that the treasurer typically did, and that’s how it moved forward.” “We knew what the change was, absolutely, but again, thought that it reflected sort of the way things have been. … It didn’t raise any issues on the surface.”  Guzzone said that if Hogan vetoes the bill, he’d be open to a “discussion.. at a little more in-depth level” next year. Kopp told Maryland Matters that she has no problem with the current arrangement. “It’s given the newer constitutional officer the opportunity to serve as vice-chairman and get a feel for how the board operates.” As to the wisdom of Guzzone’s bill, Kopp, who served in the legislature for 28 years before becoming in Treasurer in 2002, said: “I honestly think that that is a policy question that is up to the legislature, but I will say that I think the system that we have now has worked well.”  Hogan’s communications director, Amelia Chasse, said in an email: “We are reviewing the bill. The governor will certainly take the Comptroller’s input into account.” There’s no doubt where Franchot stands: “The fact that an action of this magnitude would be introduced in such a clandestine manner illustrates a startling disregard for even the most basic principles of open and transparent government. The fact that it would treat this state’s pension system with such a high degree of recklessness – given the importance of a stable and well-governed pension system to the preservation of our state’s AAA bond rating – reflects a startling lack of judgment from lawmakers who should be held to higher expectations.” To which Guzzone responds: “I think that language is unfortunate.” [email protected]

Bruce DePuyt
Bruce DePuyt spent more than two decades on local television, including 14 years as host of News Talk on NewsChannel 8 in the D.C. metro region. He has served as reporter, anchor and producer/host of 21 This Week in Montgomery County, as well as a reporter/anchor at NBC affiliate WVIR-TV in Charlottesville, VA. Bruce also is the host of the weekly The Bruce DePuyt Podcast.

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