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Hagerstown Herald-Mail: Franchot takes aim at alcohol regulation bill, Poole says 'refocus'

ANNAPOLIS — Tensions over how and whether Maryland’s alcohol regulations should be reformed — and who should regulate them — have been brewing for a couple of years now. And new legislation on the question pending in the Maryland General Assembly has Comptroller Peter Franchot hopping mad. The bills, introduced by Sen. Ben Kramer, D-Montgomery, would take authority for regulating the alcohol — and motor fuel and tobacco — industries from the comptroller’s office, where it now resides, and create a separate agency for that; and would prohibit regulators from accepting contributions of $100 or more from anyone associated with any of those industries. They result from the recommendations of a task force, headed by Hagerstown attorney and former delegate Bruce Poole, that looked into the state’s regulation of alcohol and alcohol’s effect on health and safety. The task force was created through legislation Kramer sponsored last year. Franchot, who has for the past few years been leading a campaign to lift some restrictions on Maryland’s craft beer brewers, has been leading another campaign all week to cripple the new bills even before their scheduled hearing later this month. The bills were introduced Monday. On Tuesday, Franchot issued a news release calling the bills “an unprecedented and unsubstantiated political maneuver” by Kramer, and accusing Kramer of having “a controlled monopoly on liquor distribution in Montgomery County.” And on Tuesday afternoon, he paid a personal visit to statehouse reporters to press the point. Franchot said the legislation was “motivated by petty retaliation against me for being an advocate for craft beer, which is opposed by the big out-of-state corporate beer interest.” As Poole’s task force deliberated last fall, Franchot said, “not a single complaint was registered about the enforcement of my agency of the laws. Nothing was mentioned about petroleum or the other areas of jurisdiction. And as a result, the main conclusion is that this recommendation is a recrimination against me for being an advocate for small family-owned craft brewers in Maryland.” He said there were “many connections between the out-of-state alcohol industry and leadership of the General Assembly. They’ve opened up Pandora’s box here with this legislation.” But Poole, who recommended authority be taken from the comptroller’s office, insisted Friday that recrimination wasn’t the motive at all. Where’s the focus? Poole said he recommended the change for a couple of reasons. One was that after hearing testimony from Franchot’s head of enforcement, task force members were concerned that the number of enforcers hadn’t kept up with the number of “new alcohol outlets,” including the number of new brew pubs. The other issue, he said, is that he “hasn’t seen any effort in the comptroller’s office to educate the public” about the dangers of alcohol, such as the rise in liver failure among millennials and breast cancer among women. Illnesses, he said, that are tied to higher alcohol content in some beers and wines. “For me, I just couldn’t help but conclude the comptroller wasn’t interested in that,” he said, but was focused more on issues between craft brewers and major distributors. “What is the impact?” Poole asked. “Who’s looking into that?” Del. Warren Miller, R-Howard/Carroll, served on the task force and made a strong point, Poole added. “He said ‘we make decisions every (legislative) session about who gets power … and it’s all about who’s going to make money.’” But officials need to be asking what it’s doing to the population, he said. “We really need somebody paying attention to this,” Poole said. “The comptroller’s a tax collector.” Poole currently is representing Washington County, the city of Hagerstown and other local governments in a suit against drug manufacturers in an effort to deal with opioid addiction. “It’s not just opioids,” he said. “We’re at a point where people are under enormous stress and anxiety” and turn to substances, including alcohol, to try to cope. Poole predicted anticipated debate about recreational marijuana in the General Assembly this year “is not gonna be about public health — it’s gonna be about the money … people in Annapolis who are talking about ‘other states are doing it’? It’s about the tax revenues.” But was there collusion? Franchot also spoke about Kramer’s bill during Wednesday’s Board of Public Works meeting, saying the bill “sheds light on the very darkest motivations of the Annapolis machine.” He said the bill would compromise the state’s ability “to enforce the tax laws of our state,” and claiming there had been no justification “anywhere” for taking regulatory power out of his office. And he reiterated his belief that the directive for the bill had come from the leadership of the General Assembly. “All of this apparently comes back to my effort to reform Maryland’s terrible craft beer laws,” he said. But Poole said the leadership hadn’t tried to influence the task force. Researchers who addressed the task force spoke about the public impact of alcohol, he said. “I didn’t have a bunch of lobbyists come up and give me a high-five and say thanks,” he said. House Speaker Mike Busch asked him to chair the task force, he added, “and at no time did Busch say ‘go take out the comptroller.’” House Economic Matters Committee Chairman Dereck Davis, D-Prince George’s, has declined to introduce Franchot’s “Reform on Tap” legislation this year, which usually is done as a courtesy. Davis said it was because “this is a partnersship, and the comptroller has been anything but a partner in this.” But Poole said Davis hadn’t attempted to sway him, either. “He said just do the right thing,” Poole said. The politics involved and the concern about revenues, he said, is “way off focus. We have a serious problem with addiction. “I like the people in the statehouse, but I’m struck by how different their perspective is from the rest of us,” he added. The real issue, he said, is young people and the impact of substance abuse.

https://www.heraldmailmedia.com/news/local/franchot-takes-aim-at-alcohol-regulation-bill-poole-says-refocus/article_3ccaffcc-5a47-5421-af50-0c3d49fa1149.html

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