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Comptroller, Lawmakers Battle Over Alcohol Regulation

Rachel Baye

The way Maryland regulates the alcohol, tobacco and petroleum industries is at the center of a political fight between state legislators and Comptroller Peter Franchot.

Legislators are considering moving the part of the Comptroller’s Office that regulates the alcohol, tobacco and petroleum industries — the Field Enforcement Division — to a new independent commission. The change is one of several recommended by a task force that studied ways to improve alcohol regulation to address public health and safety concerns, such as the number of people who die from alcohol-related deaths each year.

“It’s nothing against the comptroller,” Bruce Poole, the chair of the task force, said at a news conference Thursday. “It’s just the comptroller, by definition, is a tax collector. The comptroller is not educated — his people don’t have a focus — in public health considerations.”

The proposed commission, on the other hand, would include at least one expert in public health.

Sen. Ben Kramer, a Montgomery County Democrat and the bill’s sponsor, said during an interview last week that the change is also designed to create better transparency and accountability in alcohol regulation.

Maryland is one of only three states where elected officials oversee alcohol regulation and enforcement, he said.

He said the task force wanted to create independence, “and not allow the heavy contributions that come in from the alcohol industry, tobacco industry, to influence regulation and enforcement.”

Franchot is among the state’s largest beneficiaries of campaign contributions from the alcohol, tobacco and oil and gas industries, according to data from the National Institute on Money in State Politics. Between 2010 and 2018, he received more than $280,000 from these three industries.

Gov. Larry Hogan received nearly as much, while House Speaker Michael Busch, who is also among the top recipients of contributions from these industries, received less than half what Franchot did.

“The task force also thought that it was important to address this issue,” Kramer said, “and to say, OK, you know what, maybe we should prohibit campaign contributions to all elected officials from these same industries.”

So Kramer is sponsoring a bill that does that, too.

“I’m fine to have that restriction applied to me, as long as the legislature applies it to themselves,” Franchot said during an interview last week.

In fact, he said, it shouldn’t stop with the legislature. It should also apply to the governor, the Democratic and Republican parties, and the slate committees.

“All of the sleazy, back-room ways they [legislators] have of raising money, they need to apply that. And if they do, I’m happy to be a part of it,” he said. “In fact, I would welcome it.”

As for the bill that shifts his regulatory authority to the new commission, Franchot said at his own news conference Thursday that it’s an attempt to punish him for efforts to change laws governing the craft beer industry.

“Craft beer is very popular, and sales are skyrocketing. Budweiser, Miller and Coors are not popular. Their sales are dropping like rocks,” he said. “So it’s a competitive situation where the forces of out-of-state beer cartels are engaging in what I think is economic protectionism.”

He pointed to the beer industry’s heavy lobbying influence. Anheuser-Busch, Miller-Coors, and the Maryland Beer Wholesalers Association have a combined 10 lobbyists in Annapolis.

And he said creating the commission would cost the state about $50 million.

However, the nonpartisan Department of Legislative Services estimates that the cost would actually be about $4 million in the first year to set up the new regulatory office and about $700,000 a year after that.

Both bills have committee hearings scheduled Friday.

Rachel Baye is a senior reporter and editor in WYPR's newsroom.
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