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Government & Politics

Task Force Recommends Removing Comptroller’s Alcohol Oversight

A state task force has recommended removing Comptroller Peter V.R. Franchot’s oversight of the alcohol industry, which the comptroller has sought to shake up in recent years by advocating looser restrictions on homegrown breweries.

The Task Force to Study State Alcohol Regulation, Enforcement, Safety, and Public Health voted 13-7 on Monday to remove the comptroller’s oversight of alcohol as well as motor fuel and tobacco, the two other industries under the supervision of the comptroller’s Field Enforcement Division.

The task force was created by a measure sponsored by Dels. Benjamin F. Kramer (D-Montgomery) and Warren E. Miller (R-Howard, Carroll) last legislative session, as Franchot thumped for a different measure, his Reform on Tap proposal, which would have loosened the state’s laws governing craft breweries.

The task force has broad authority, including to examine what is the proper agency to regulate alcohol in the state. The panel has looked at issues including the societal ills of alcohol consumption, and its legislative creators have criticized Franchot for accepting campaign donations from industries his office regulates.

Monday’s vote to recommend removal of Franchot’s oversight authority is the result of a long-simmering feud between the comptroller and lawmakers in the General Assembly, though the task force’s chairman tried to downplay the political history on Monday.

The chairman, former House majority leader D. Bruce Poole (D), put forward the recommendation to establish a new separate agency in charge of regulating and enforcing alcohol, tobacco and motor fuel laws.

“I do not believe for a second that this comptroller is corrupt, that he’s doing something to muscle people under,” Poole said. “But I do think that the perception of having the regulator funded for reelection by the people that are being regulated is a problem.”

Task force member Lt. Col. Frank B. Lioi, chief of the Field Operations Bureau at Maryland State Police, pushed back, saying that if campaign donations were the main concern, that issue should be addressed before removing oversight entirely.

Poole responded that he also has concerns that the comptroller’s office has not focused on the public health aspect of licensing.

Lioi said the comptroller’s office should have the chance to address concerns before losing its oversight role.

The commission also voted Monday on nearly three dozen recommendation, including one dealing with the campaign finance issue.

An initial commission recommendation to prohibit campaign contributions to the comptroller from the alcohol, motor fuel and tobacco industries was amended to prohibit donations from those industries to any lawmaker in the state.

Other commission recommendations include requiring a public health impact statement for all alcohol legislation introduced in the General Assembly; curtailing any further expansion of “one-stop shopping” for alcohol in places with groceries or other retail goods; and expanding training requirements for workers in businesses that serve alcohol.

A final report is due to the General Assembly soon.

Miller said no bills related to the task force’s recommendations have been drafted yet, but the recommendations were likely to spur several pieces of legislation.

He said he had “no idea” whether a bill to curtail the comptroller’s oversight role would pass the General Assembly.

A bill to establish the task force last year passed with about a dozen dissenters, but Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) refused to sign the measure, which nevertheless took effect.

Many of the details about the recommendation to remove oversight would be revealed in legislation, once drafted.

The task force did not detail at all what form a new state entity should take on. Some members, including Kramer said the change could be done at “minimal” cost to the state by keeping the comptroller’s existing Field Enforcement Division could in place, with a new organizational structure and a non-elected leader.

Before the commission’s vote, Franchot’s Chief of Staff Len N. Foxwell wrote a letter to the task force, urging them not to remove the oversight role and criticizing commission members’ political motives.

“Aside from the frustration shared by certain legislative leaders over Comptroller Franchot’s advocacy of the craft beer industry, his willingness to speak out against monopolistic corporate trade practices and other acts of perceived rebellion against Annapolis orthodoxy, what, exactly, is the point of all of this?” Foxwell wrote in the letter.

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Task Force Recommends Removing Comptroller’s Alcohol Oversight