Franchot in catbird’s seat as session convenes

Peter Franchot is entering his third term as the state's top tax collector.

There is a tradition in Maryland that the state comptroller somehow happens to be the most dynamic political leader in the state.

Millard Tawes, it could be argued, was a much more interesting politician when he was comptroller, and performed in a much more reserved manner as governor.

Louis L. Goldstein, who always wanted to be governor, was the epitome of local politician meets the big time; he converted his Calvert County small-town charm into a caricature he adopted to help lead the state for 40 years. Goldstein defined the role of comptroller; all previous and future comptrollers will — and should — be compared to him.

After serving as a wildly successful Baltimore mayor and mostly successful governor, William Donald Schaefer settled into the comptroller’s job — and even more aspects of his compelling personality were revealed.

(I’ve learned to avoid writing too much about Schaefer, because whenever I do, Eastern Shoremen have been known to throw their newspaper down.)

Enter Democrat Peter Franchot. At the beginning of 2006, Franchot was an ultra-liberal state delegate from Tacoma Park in Montgomery County. How liberal is Tacoma Park? There, they hire inspectors to sort through people’s trash to catch those who fail to adhere to municipal recycling laws.

Yet Peter Franchot, fresh off a term in which he continually bashed Republican Gov. Bob Ehrlich, did the unthinkable and challenged Schaefer (who had become Ehrlich’s buddy) for the comptroller’s seat.

In a three-way primary, Franchot won handily. He is regarded as comptroller for life, should that be his choice.

Two terms in, however, Franchot has demonstrated an admirable independence, both in party ideology and political application. He has been an aggressive, progressive and active comptroller. He sought to balance Martin O’Malley for the past eight years and has seemed more than sincere when identifying the problems Maryland businessmen face and offering solutions to make the state more business-friendly.

In fact, Franchot is such a business cheerleader that he might have made himself too moderate to ever win a Democratic primary for governor.

So as the Assembly convenes this week, Franchot might very well find himself in the cat bird’s seat. He has a rookie Republican governor set to take office and a Democratic leadership that isn’t sure how to conduct itself.

Peter Franchot could serve as the conduit between these two entities, and truly shape how government business will be conducted for the next four years — and even longer.

Q. With the change of leadership — both in personality and political party — you find yourself in a unique position.

A. I continue to feel honored and humbled to serve in this historic role – following in the legendary footsteps of Maryland giants like Louis Goldstein and William Donald Schaefer – in a job that truly is the most profound thrill of my professional life.

I look forward to leading an honest conversation about the fiscal issues confronting the State and the economic challenges facing Maryland families and small businesses.

I’ve had productive conversations with the Governor-Elect, have offered the full cooperation of my agency throughout the transition and look forward to working with him, especially on ways to improve our state government’s relationship with the business community, to promote Maryland’s private sector economy and to instill more competition in state contracting.

Q. Can you use your position and deep experience to serve as a bridge between the Democratic legislative leadership.

 A. Our biggest challenge right now is the fact that we are in the midst of the slowest and most anemic economic recovery in our lifetimes and, as a result, Maryland families and small businesses are struggling.

It requires us to make adjustments in the way we spend taxpayer dollars and in the debt we can afford to accumulate before we risk having our well-intentioned wants taking away from our pressing needs.

These aren’t Republican issues or Democratic issues; they’re Maryland issues, and as an independently elected comptroller, I look forward to bringing people together to address them.

Q. Where do you see the state’s economy headed?

 A. I have the utmost confidence that given the resilience of Maryland’s citizens and the strength of our economic bones, we can and will withstand the near-term fiscal and economic challenges we face.

Right now, however, we are experiencing the most lethargic recovery in generations. Unemployment remains historically high by Maryland’s standards and wage growth is lagging the rest of the country and has failed to keep pace with inflation, and therefore, an economy that is powered by consumer spending is sputtering.

We need to make adjustments to weather the storm, introducing stability in our tax and regulatory environment, separating our wants from our needs in terms of state spending and controlling our current patterns of debt accumulation to protect our vital priorities.

Q. It looks like there’s going to be some serious questions about school construction. How will that issue play before the Board of Public Works?

A. As Comptroller, I’ve visited more than 250 schools to identify local needs and to inspect our state investments firsthand. Along with the governor and treasurer on the Board of Public Works, I’ve emphasized school maintenance as a top priority.

By taking better care of what we have, we’ve seen meaningful cost-savings, and have also witnessed the added benefit of improved morale, better learning outcomes and increased community pride in well-maintained facilities.

There is nothing more critical to ensuring Maryland’s long-term economic future than making smart investments in our schools which is why I’m looking forward to the annual IAC School Construction Appeals coming up at the end of this month.

It’s a long day, but it’s always a highlight to hear about the important funding priorities from each of Maryland’s 24 school districts, and as we identify our best ways to invest wisely, I look forward to continuing our focus on cost-savings by rewarding those districts who demonstrate careful stewardship of taxpayer dollars.

Q. You have maintained a decidedly pro-business stance. What steps will you be encouraging to promote Maryland as a business destination?

A. Maryland has tremendous assets that are attractive to businesses – a highly educated workforce powered by a great K-12 public school system, outstanding universities, research labs and federal installations and our plethora of natural resources, highlighted by the Chesapeake Bay.

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What businesses need most of all is a sense of stability so they have the confidence necessary to plan, hire and grow and so consumers feel encouraged to spend discretionary income. They also are looking for government to work with them, rather than to compete against them.

That’s why I’ve called for a time-out from tax and fee increases and significant regulatory changes, for state and local government to rededicate ourselves to customer service and to inject more bid competition and greater transparency in state contracting.

These are three changes that would make an immediate impact on our business reputation without a prolonged legislative battle and, most importantly, they wouldn’t cost taxpayers a dime.

Q. How are things going in your campaign to begin schools after Labor Day?

A. Back in August, we began our grassroots, volunteer-led petition drive with an ambitious goal of collecting 10,000 signatures in support of this effort to start Maryland public schools after Labor Day.

Thanks to the shared effort of thousands of Marylanders, certainly on the Lower Shore, but from all across the State, we will now far exceed that goal. The overwhelming support we’ve received from families, teachers and small businesses from every corner of our state has given this important, common-sense initiative incredible momentum.

Q. It’s tax season — and you’re the state’s tax collector. How is the season going?

A. We expect to have another strong tax filing season, beginning on January 20th. My staff and I continue to work diligently to make the filing process as easy as possible.

As always, I highly encourage Marylanders to file their Maryland taxes electronically – it’s the most efficient and secure way to file and it allows us to get you your refund back within three days on average.

Q. You seem to really enjoy this job. (Talk about that.)

A. When I first ran for comptroller in 2006, no one – including my own mother – thought I could win. I wasn’t the best known or best financed candidate in the race, but I believed in my heart that Marylanders were looking for an independent fiscal watchdog willing to challenge the status quo in Annapolis.

Here I am, thanks to the voters, with a tremendous opportunity to serve in such a great role, pinching myself as I look out the window of my office at the statue of Louie Goldstein, thinking to myself, I truly have been “blessed real good.”

Q. The local businesses in our area really seem to appreciate your visits and recognitions.

A. I love to be on the Lower Shore and make it a point to visit as often as I can. What makes Maryland great isn’t what happens in Annapolis, but what’s happening in our communities.

My favorite part of the job is traveling across the state to meet so many extraordinary Marylanders, and to hear their stories.

The least I can do as a state elected official is to recognize the people whose exceptional efforts contribute so much to making Maryland such a great place to live, work and raise a family.

Greg Bassett is editor and general manager of Salisbury Independent. Reach him at gbassett@newszap.com

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