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Frederick News Post: Petty politics will cost Marylanders

As the Maryland General Assembly session slowly grinds to a close, political pettiness reached its peak this week.

Bills to create an alcohol, tobacco and motor fuel commission passed both chambers, removing Comptroller Peter Franchot’s regulatory authority over those industries.

This bill does little more than spite Franchot for, he says, backing craft breweries over big beer producers. It’s true that Franchot has been a supporter of the craft beer industry — he routinely makes stops in Frederick to visit with brewers and has worked to loosen restrictions to allow them to expand their business.

It’s also true that Franchot, a Democrat who garnered more than 1.6 million votes in the 2018 election, has developed a collaborative and cooperative relationship with Republican Gov. Larry Hogan, and distanced himself from his own party on several occasions. It’s unlikely that either of those factors has gone unnoticed.

Recommendations for the bills came from a task force chaired by former Del. Bruce Poole that convened with the specific intent to examine whether Franchot’s office should regulate alcohol. The task force developed more than 30 recommendations, many of which are part of the bills or companion bills.

Legislative supporters of SB 703 and HB 1052 hid behind acting in the interest of public health as reasoning to pass each bill. Bill sponsor Sen. Ben Kramer (D-Montgomery) and Poole cited statistics of increased drunken-driving deaths, increased liver disease among young people and increased deaths involving alcohol as reasons to remove oversight from the comptroller.

Given that the exact same agency will enforce the exact same laws, their argument appears to be alcohol-related deaths and diseases are increasing, and it’s all Franchot’s fault.

Hogan was right to veto the bill, even if a Hogan veto is little more than a symbolic gesture with both chambers having veto-proof majorities. The veto was swiftly overturned by the House and a Senate vote that was not shocking given the pettiness in Annapolis, nearly along party lines with the exception of one Democratic vote to sustain the veto, and one Democratic vote being excused.

There are some worthwhile aspects to the bill and the recommendations of the task force from which the bill has stemmed. For instance, increasing sizes of alcohol levels on beers will allow bar patrons to know how much alcohol they’re consuming. Not allowing elected officials or regulators to accept contributions from folks in the industry is a nice first step to getting big money out of politics. Increased compliance checks will help curb underage sales.

But the bill is largely a farce and more transparent than most who occupy public office.

If the Legislature truly wants to crack down on alcohol for public health reasons, it could start by reviewing the dozens of bills they themselves have passed in the last three years to expand availability of alcohol to consumers. One such bill allowed barbershops in Frederick County to sell beer. Public health and safety oddly was never considered for those bills.

As Keith Walcott, a private citizen who testified against the bill, stated at the hearing, a consumer can walk into a bar and order 12 shots of whiskey and be asked little more than “do you want to start a tab?”

Kramer criticized the comptroller’s office for not being effective in treating alcohol as a public safety crisis. But the office has a few wins in the public safety column via getting rid of Four Loko, caffeinated alcohol beverages, and powdered alcohol. Franchot also spoke out publicly about the dangers of the 77-pack that Natural Light began selling in College Park in 2018. Franchot criticized the stunt, saying it only encouraged binge drinking on college campuses.

But the truth is, much of the responsibility of cracking down on alcohol from a public safety perspective falls on the local health departments. And it’s difficult to see how this bill changes any of that. It’s also hard to see how a commission that is slated to meet once a month will solve all of our public health problems.

It’s also wholly unnecessary and expensive.

In the midst of a looming deficit that some have said could be in the hundreds of millions of dollars, this legislature thinks it wise to spend several millions — somewhere between $7 million and $50 million over five years, according to two different estimates — to change nameplates for alcohol, tobacco and motor fuel regulation. At a time when the state is searching for funding for the Kirwan Commission recommendations, this is hardly a wise investment.

But the changing of the nameplate will also cause major disruption in the effectiveness of the enforcement and regulation division, according to Jeff Kelly, director of the field enforcement division. Along with requiring duplicative jobs, the bill would require separating the enforcement division from the rest of the comptroller’s office — an office that requires much crossover, Kelly said.

But Kelly’s cautions fell on deaf ears of a committee that likely had its mind made up before its members walked in the door.

The Legislature instead seems to think it knows more about how the office operates — or should operate — than the guy, you know, actually operating it.

Given Franchot’s popularity evidenced in the 2018 election results, it’s less likely this bill results in any damage, but will rather have the opposite of the intended effect: worse alcohol regulation and enforcement.

And we’ll have spent millions to boot.

Allen Etzler is a city editor at The Frederick News-Post. He dislikes petty politics, curly fries and sitting on the beach. You can email him at aetzler@newspost.com.

https://www.fredericknewspost.com/opinion/columns/petty-politics-will-cost-marylanders/article_9421492f-3174-54c1-ac8b-c4fdba251b83.html

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