Senator Stalls Nominees to Alcohol Commission He Helped Create

Sen. Benjamin F. Kramer (D-Montgomery) on the Senate floor. Photo by Danielle E. Gaines.

When the General Assembly concluded months of contentious debate by voting in 2019 to transfer regulation of alcohol and tobacco from the state comptroller’s office to a new entity in the governor’s office, state Sen. Benjamin F. Kramer (D-Montgomery) was at the center of the effort.

Kramer, who regularly warns of the public health impacts of alcohol abuse, was a vocal foe of efforts by Comptroller Peter V.R. Franchot (D) to boost Maryland’s craft brewers, warning that special favors for the fledgling industry would only lead to more drunk driving and a greater health and safety crisis. Franchot and legislative leaders eventually went to war over various aspects of liquor promotion and regulation in the state, and Kramer became the chief Senate sponsor of legislation to strip the comptroller’s office of its regulatory powers.

The legislature passed the bill resoundingly; Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R), then an ally of Franchot’s, vetoed it. But lawmakers quickly moved to override the veto, setting the wheels in motion to move the comptroller’s alcohol and tobacco enforcement division, with its investigative and regulatory powers, into the governor’s office.

Today, the transition is all but complete, but Kramer threw a wrinkle into the process on Friday: When the Senate voted to consider Hogan’s five nominees to the new Maryland Alcohol and Tobacco Commission, the senator sought to delay two of the nominees.

The Senate wound up confirming three of the new commissioners — Elizabeth J. Buck, Jeffrey A. Kelly and Robert H. Poole — but at Kramer’s request, won’t take up the nominations of the other two, Eric J. Morrissette and Barbara A. Wahl, until Monday evening.

In an interview, Kramer said he decided to put a temporary hold on the Wahl and Morrissette appointments because he didn’t know enough about their backgrounds and wasn’t sure they were qualified to serve on the commission in the roles carved out for them. He said he would spend the weekend trying to learn more about them and speaking to policy experts.

“I’m just doing my best to ensure that the commission functions the way it’s supposed to,” Kramer said.

The commission as devised has six members with prescribed backgrounds: Kelly, who had been director of the field enforcement division in the comptroller’s office, is playing an equivalent role in the new agency and will serve at the pleasure of the governor. Poole, who works for the U.S. Department of Justice, will fill the law enforcement slot at the commission and is due to serve until June 30, 2024. Buck, owner of Buck Distributing Company, a politically-connected beer and alcohol distributor in Upper Marlboro, will represent the liquor industry and is due to serve until this June 30.

Morrissette, a top aide to U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), who previously worked for the House Financial Services Committee on Capitol Hill, was nominated for the slot representing financial regulators and due to serve until June 30, 2022. Wahl, chief operating officer of Concerted Care Group, a substance abuse treatment center in Baltimore focusing on opioid addiction, was nominated to fill the commission’s public health slot and would also serve until 2024 if confirmed.

But Kramer said he simply didn’t know anything about Morrissette and Wahl, and had heard from some public health experts “concerns that Ms. Wahl didn’t have the sufficient background…that this is not her area of expertise.” Given Morrissette’s high-ranking job with Klobuchar, Kramer said he wondered whether “he has the bandwidth” to serve on the new commission.

“It’s not to say he might not be a brilliant human being,” he said.

Kramer also criticized Hogan for nominating Len N. Foxwell, Franchot’s former chief of staff who orchestrated Franchot’s efforts to promote the craft beer industry, to the panel. Foxwell, Franchot’s longtime top adviser who resigned from the comptroller’s office in the fall, was nominated to the slot for alcohol regulators and serve as chairman for the Alcohol and Tobacco Commission’s first few meetings this year. But he stepped down from the commission earlier this month, saying he wanted to avoid potential conflicts of interest between his volunteer state position and potential industry clients he might represent through his recently-launched communications and political consulting business.

Kramer said that if Foxwell hadn’t resigned, his nomination “would have been a nonstarter in the Senate.” And he criticized Hogan’s decision to appoint Foxwell to the commission, saying it was a political favor to Franchot and showed the governor wasn’t taking the work of the newly-formed panel very seriously (Hogan nominated Foxwell before Franchot and Foxwell had their falling out).

Hogan has yet to nominate a replacement for Foxwell on the commission. “I hope that Hogan will be a little more serious with his next nomination,” Kramer said.

Foxwell, who led Franchot’s war against the legislature for many years, has hit back against Kramer in a Facebook post.

The senator added that as policymakers debate whether to legalize the recreational use of marijuana in Maryland, the new Alcohol and Tobacco Commission could eventually morph into the regulatory body for legalized cannabis and become “the Alcohol, Tobacco and Cannabis Commission.”

“I think it’s poised to play a very important role in the future,” Kramer said.

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Josh Kurtz
Co-founder and Editor Josh Kurtz is the leading chronicler of Maryland politics and government. He began covering the State House in 1995 for The Gazette newspapers, and has been writing about state and local politics ever since. He later became an editor at Roll Call, the Capitol Hill newspaper, and spent eight years at E&E News, an online subscription-only publisher of news websites covering energy and environmental issues. For seven of those years, he led a staff of 20 reporters at E&E Daily, which covers energy and environmental policy on Capitol Hill and in national politics. For 6 1/2 years he wrote a weekly column on state politics for Center Maryland and has written for several other Maryland publications as well. Kurtz has given speeches and appeared on TV and radio shows about Maryland politics through the years.