The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Maryland officials fight over who should enforce alcohol regulations

Maryland Comptroller Peter Franchot (D), right, Gov. Larry Hogan (R), and Kevin Atticks toast with lager from a Chesapeake Brewing Company in Annapolis in February 2017. (Linda Davidson/The Washington Post)

A struggle over whether to strip alcohol regulation from the Maryland comptroller’s office turned ugly last week as each side accused the other of putting politics over public health and safety.

In the past two years, Comptroller Peter Franchot (D) has pushed legislation that would remove caps on how much craft beer can be made and sold in local breweries. The effort did not succeed, and he angered some fellow Democrats with rhetoric accusing state lawmakers — including House Speaker Michael E. Busch (Anne Arundel) — of being under the thumb of big beer distributors.

State Sen. Benjamin F. Kramer (D-Montgomery) is sponsoring legislation that would move alcohol regulation from Franchot’s office to a commission appointed by the governor. The bill includes measures to bolster education and prevention of alcohol abuse, which has brought it support from safety advocates such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving.

Franchot calls Kramer’s bill “a political stunt and an act of political retribution” and says it’s being carried out at the behest of Busch. Kramer says that he is “certainly no patsy” for the General Assembly’s leadership, and that Franchot is holding onto alcohol regulation so he can more easily solicit alcohol business interests for political donations.

“His lies know no bounds in his desperation to protect his pot of gold,” Kramer said during a Senate committee hearing Friday, a day after he and Franchot held dueling news conferences to stake out their positions and take shots at each other.

A bipartisan friendship: Gov. Hogan and Comptroller Franchot

Unlike neighboring Virginia, Pennsylvania and Delaware, Maryland strictly limits how much craft-beer breweries can produce and sell, restrictions that critics say are archaic and favor out-of-state beer importers.

Franchot — who was overwhelmingly elected to a fourth term in November, and represented Takoma Park and Silver Spring for 20 years in the House of Delegates before becoming comptroller — has been the leading voice in state government in the fight for local breweries.

In 2017, he created a task force, Reform on Tap, that highlighted the industry’s desire to grow.

But his proposals to overhaul state law in hopes of better attracting and retaining craft-beer manufacturers did not advance in the General Assembly, where Democrats hold overwhelming majorities in both chambers. Franchot is closely allied with Republican Gov. Larry Hogan and has clashed repeatedly with legislative leaders from his party.

Kramer, a first-term senator who previously served three terms in the House, is the son of former Montgomery County executive and state senator Sidney Kramer. His sister Rona E. Kramer also served in the state Senate.

He takes issue with Franchot’s advocacy for one sector of the alcohol industry and co-sponsored a bill last year to create a task force to examine whether the comptroller’s office is “the most appropriate agency to ensure the safety and welfare of Maryland residents.”

Last summer, after Kramer’s bill passed, Busch called Hagerstown attorney and former state delegate D. Bruce Poole and asked him to chair the task force.

“I frankly hadn’t paid much attention to this issue,” Poole said during Kramer’s news conference Thursday. But he agreed to help. “When the speaker calls you, you say yes. I’ve learned that over the years.”

Progressive group launches campaign against powerful Senate president

The task force’s 20 members, who included Kramer, alcohol safety advocates, industry representatives and others, gathered four times in recent months for 2-hour meetings to receive presentations and discuss alcohol regulation and public safety issues. They spent a portion of the meetings discussing whether to create a new commission to oversee alcohol regulation.

The comptroller’s field division that enforces alcohol, tobacco and motor fuel regulations was widely praised. Still, Poole and Kramer pushed for the task force to recommend moving the division from under Franchot’s authority. Health and safety advocates on the task force supported the idea of a commission that would focus on those issues as well as regulation.

During the commission’s final meeting in January, the task force voted 13 to 7 in favor of moving alcohol, tobacco and motor fuel enforcement from the comptroller’s office to a commission appointed by the governor. They also agreed to recommend various other measures to promote health and safety, such as improved data collection and better labeling for high-alcohol content beverages.

During Friday’s hearing, Kramer, who doesn’t accept campaign donations from alcohol-related businesses, urged support for a bill that would carry out many of the task force’s recommendations.

He touted his past advocacy of alcohol safety measures, such as 2016’s Noah’s Law, which expanded the use of interlock ignition devices for drunk drivers and was named after Noah Leotta, a Montgomery County police officer who was killed by a drunk driver. Kramer said his bill won’t change the structure of the comptroller’s field enforcement division but simply move it from under the comptroller, making it more independent.

Franchot said the proposed move would amount to a wasteful reorganization. He said alcohol taxation under his agency would suffer from losing the regulation division’s law enforcement officers, and the regulation division would suffer from lack of access to sensitive tax information.

“This will lead to two agencies with duplicate functions, and neither will function as well as they did together,” he said.

David Brinkley, Hogan’s secretary of the Department of Budget and Management, also spoke against the plan, referring to it as a “massive reorganization” on which his office had not been consulted.

He said he “doubts the wisdom of a move that would unduly burden this new unit of state government from both a budgetary and an operational standpoint.”

The legislation was also discussed Friday by a committee of the House, where it is sponsored by Del. Warren E. Miller (R-Howard). Neither committee voted on the legislation, which must happen by mid-March in order for it to have a strong chance of advancing.

Gov. Hogan to President Trump: ‘What are you so afraid of?’

Senate President Miller on HBCU lawsuit: ‘It needs to be settled’

Maryland moves forward on gender-neutral IDs, despite concerns from GOP leader

Local newsletters: Local headlines (8 a.m.) | Afternoon Buzz (4 p.m.)

Like PostLocal on Facebook | Follow @postlocal on Twitter | Latest local news