Route 1 Reporter: Q&A: Franchot talks politics, transportation & climate change
Maryland Comptroller Peter Franchot very well might be the state’s next governor. But time – a lot of it – will tell. Franchot, who has served as Comptroller since 2007 and has been in state politics since 1987, made his intentions for the governor’s mansion known earlier this year, with three years still to go on current Gov. Larry Hogan’s final term.
But how Franchot fares in three years time on the ballot box for the state’s highest office depends a lot on his agenda during those next three years. Much of it will also come down to how Prince George’s County’s many voters feel about him. That matters because some of the biggest issues before Franchot will have an outsized impact on Prince George’s County – from school funding issues to a possible expansion of the Beltway in Prince George’s.
Route 1 Reporter had a chance to interview Franchot at Vigilante Coffee on Feb. 11, 2020 before he bestowed honors upon the Hyattsville-based coffee shop for ranking among the five-best coffee shops in Maryland.
In addition to the responses to our questions below, Franchot was also eager to highlight the Comptroller’s Office’s work in the ongoing tax season. In particular, he highlighted his office’s efforts to speed up tax refunds, and boasted in takes an average of two days for tax returns to be processed. This year, he expected the comptroller’s office would be issuing about $2.5 billion worth of tax refunds. He also highlighted a novel effort to expand insurance coverage in Maryland by way of the tax form. This year, for the first time, Marylanders will have the option of indicating if they have health insurance on their tax return form. Those who answer “no,” can be put in touch with health workers to try to match them up with an affordable health insurance plan.
“We’re trying to reach out to 300,000 or 400,000 Marylanders who are eligible for affordable healthcare insurance, but they haven’t signed up for one reason or another,” said Franchot. “Either they’re feeling healthy or they just don’t like the hassle or they don’t quite understand it.”
R1R: This seems a bit early in the cycle for my experience, but I understand you are running for governor. Why did you start your campaign so early?
Franchot: Well, I’m a late bloomer. It takes me a long time to get off the ramp of getting into a big statewide race. I served in the legislature for 20 years. I did the same thing there [in 1987]. I announced early. A lot of people didn’t say I had a chance, ’cause I was running against the incumbent governor and comptroller, William Donald Schaefer. Well, I ended up winning because I had a message that people responded to.
Same thing here. It’s simply a fact that I’ve made a personal decision that, at the end of this term, I will have been comptroller for 16 years. I’ve done everything I could for the comptroller’s office. We turned it from a sleepy bureaucracy into a turbocharged engine of customer service. Everybody appreciates that around the state. I would like to do the same thing as governor, which is, you know, get people’s trust and confidence and then do some fundamental reform of the state’s economy.
R1R: A recent Facebook post from one of your social media accounts described you as an outsider. You’ve been in state politics since 1987. You’ve been the comptroller, as you just noted, for 16 years. How are you an outsider?
Franchot: I’m an outsider like almost everybody who votes in the state is an outsider. There are a small number of people in Annapolis – I called them the Annapolis Bosses – who basically make the decisions on a lot of the major decisions about…what the state’s fiscal and political future should be. I’m not part of that group. I happen to be a pro-business independent Democrat.
And independent Democrat means I’m not under anyone’s thumb. I’m not dominated by somebody saying ‘you know, we don’t agree with you, but you have to agree with us because we’re the bosses.’ That doesn’t exist for me, even though I’ve been in politics and elected office a long time. I find that resonates with Democrats around the state. As a result I’ve run four statewide elections where I haven’t had any primary opponent. I always lead the ticket.
I think it’s because I communicated with people that, you know, I’m going to put them in front of partisan party skullduggery which goes on – on both sides, Republicans and Democrats. I’m not trying to say Democrats are worse than Republicans. Both parties engage in this. I happen to be lucky enough to have a job where I don’t have to be at someone’s beck and call.
I can raise my own money from my own supporters. I have a tremendous connection with the voters. So that allows me to say to folks ‘vote for me,’ because like you, I’m on the outside looking in, but since I’m part of the outsiders, I’m going to be a real honest, straight shooting representative for you. You may not agree with me all the time. I may have a different view on widening the Beltway or something, but at least you’ll know that I’m on the level and I’m not doing something that I’d be in ordered to do by somebody in a back room.
R1R: I’ve heard you described as the most-popular politician in Maryland. The party appears to be moving leftward, both in Maryland and nationally. How will you fend off more progressive candidates?
Franchot: Well, first of all, I see myself as progressive. I don’t see this as a choice between left and right, liberal and conservative. I know that’s how people talk. I just don’t find that in the vast majority of Democratic voters. That’s why I use the phrase outsiders versus insiders.
I feel very compatible with average Democratic, Republic and independent voters out there who view the process with some skepticism. They know a lot of decisions are made in back rooms where there’s no accountability or transparency.
Sometimes the decisions are good decisions. A lot of times they’re not good decisions and rather than going to people and saying, you know, where I am on the conservative, moderate and liberal spectrum. I’m going to them and saying no, it’s outsiders – 95 percent of the people – versys five percent of the folks that are kind of career insiders either in Annapolis or Washington.
R1R: You mentioned the Beltway expansion. The area I cover goes from Eastern Avenue to the Beltway along Route 1 up to College Park, where there are neighborhoods that quite literally back up to the Beltway. Talk about your thoughts on the Beltway expansion in Prince George’s County, which has been delayed for a bit. Where do you see that project in the future?
Franchot: This started out as the biggest public private partnership in the country. It still is, but since I was the deciding vote on the board of public works, I insisted it be cut in half and we just do the western side first, which is the American Legion Bridge, I-495 up to I-270, where it goes up to Frederick. They an do all of the widening and toll roads and improvements they want to, using private money. This is not a taxpayer funded exercise.
I think it’s required because there’s so much congestion on that wing of the Beltway, between 270. But east of there, covering Montgomery County and Prince George’s County, it’s a lot more controversial. In Montgomery County, there’ll be private residences that need to be taken if they move forward with a widening process.
So, I said in order to have my support for this you’ve got to split it in two. We’ll do the first half first, see how it goes, and then we’ll do planning and consultation with Montgomery and Prince George’s officials if the second half goes through. It’s not definite. It’s going to go through all sorts of mitigating amendments to make sure the environment is paid attention to and to make sure there’s no eminent domain taking of private homes that isn’t absolutely necessary; that mass transit funding goes to Prince George’s County and Montgomery County. And that local officials – Angela Alsobrooks and Marc Elrich and those folks are included. At the end of the day they will either be for it or against it. I believe they’ll be for it because I think there does need to be capacity added to the Beltway.
I’m a huge Purple Line fan. I was a champion for that. We did the same strategy with that where, in Bethesda and some areas of Montgomery County, there was enormous opposition to the Purple Line. I think it’s going to be a big mass transit improvement. So we said okay, Bethesda is very opposed to this. Rather than stopping the whole project, why don’t we just do the first half from [New Carrollton] over to College Park and Langley Park. As soon as we did that, all of the opposition in Bethesda melted away except for the Country Club,’cause they didn’t want one of their tees to be affected. But everyone else, they said hey, we kinda like this now. We kinda see what you’re doing. Now we’re doing the whole line.
I’m hoping the Beltway expansion and widening project will be like that. But there’s always a chance Prince George’s County and eastern Montgomery County just say we don’t want it.
R1R: Well, that leads me to my next question: Should all counties in Maryland have the highway veto that some counties on the Eastern shore have over highway projects?
Franchot: Well, I love local inclusion of course. But you’ve gotta be realistic on some of these big projects. If you give all sorts of different people veto power, they tend not to get done. I insisted they study putting a monorail up to Frederick from Rockville. I wanted to study it. But I don’t want, like, local officials being able to either veto or substitute it for somesthing else. That would completely disrupt the whole process. So, on local control, I’m for local inclusion, yes. Yes on local transit and environmental issues and local community concerns. But probably no on a veto.
R1R: Considering the effects of induced demand, do you believe expanding I-495, or highways in general, can lead to meaningful, long-term congestion relief?
Franchot: Yes I do. And that’s not to say I’m not a huge mass transit champion. I am. I believe in mass transit. I think it makes sense, particularly for folks that don’t have fancy automobiles. But I do think adding capacity to the Beltway and to the American Legion Bridge and up I-270 to Frederick, I think that’s doable, particularly if the private sector is providing the capital.
But one of the conditions I put on this was that the tolls are ultimately going to be determined by the state. Not by the private developer. That’s where they got into trouble over in Virginia, and they ended up with some outrageously high tolls. That’s not going to happen in Maryland.
Though, tolls are tolls. I’m not a huge fan of them. But they’re also going to be free lanes that are maintained by the private sector. I think adding capacity, as long as it’s with oversight, is appropriate because at this point, it [Beltway congestion] is unacceptable. I’ve lived in Montgomery County for 40 years, and it’s reached a point where maybe we all need personal drones or something. It’s not acceptable to have the kind of congestion that’s there right now.
R1R: It’s been said we’re in a climate crisis right now, and that if we don’t act soon, in 200 to 300 years, our planet could be drastically different. How much inconvenience should we bear today to preserve a habitable planet in the future?
Franchot: A lot. It’s probably the number one issue right now and for the next 20 to 30 years. I’m a huge fan of addressing these issues collectively with our neighboring states and with the federal government. But everything’s fractured. The federal government seems to ignore climate change. We seem to be doing better in Maryland, in completely committing to moving away from fossil fuels and adopting renewable energy practices that are conducive to dealing with the weird, unbelievable extreme climate issues that are already upon us.
In Takoma Park, we have these beautiful mature oak trees that are suddeny dying as if they all got Ebola or something. Literally massive, beautiful oak trees, hundreds of them. Not a couple. They’re all dying suddenly. Why are they dying? The foresters say it’s these extreme climates that we’re experiencing. You know, one soummer it’s wet. The next summer it’s a drought.
It’s already upon us. What have we done on that score? I led the fight to stop a new natural gas pipeline from being put across Western Maryland. Why did I do that, it wasn’t economically benefiting Maryland at all. It was simply a fossil fuel pipeline going from Pennsylvania over to West Virginia. So we blocked that. There are other things we can do, but ultimately it’s such a big issue that we need to work collectively.
R1R: Moving over to legislative issues, how can Maryland afford the Kirwan Commission’s goals? I say this as a journalist who – I’m afraid to admit – has a hard time figuring out just what the Kirwan Commission’s actual recommendations are. It’s very hard to find basic information or an explainer about it beyond the name.
Franchot: It’s turned into kind of a brand. It’s kind of like a dividing thing for people. It’s not exactly clear what the Kirwan reforms are. We all want education to be at its absolute best here in Maryland…
I was in the legislature when Thornton, which was kind of Kirwan-light, was first voted on. That was also a $2 billion effort to improve and add extra fiscal resources to education, with the same kind of promises Kirwan has, which is what we really needed.
It was for the kids. It was for education. You can’t possibly oppose it. I remember asking on the floor of the House, how are we going to pay for this? The response I got back from my party was, don’t worry about it, Kathleen Kennedy-Townsend is going to win the gubernatorial race next year and we’ll raise the sales tax to pay for Thorton. This is back in 2000, and I said great. So, bingo, I vote for Thorton. Then [Kennedy-Townsend] was defeated, a Republican comes in. They don’t raise taxes and it caused a huge amount of fiscal disruption, unnecessarily. And even though we eventually ended up fully funding Thorton, I’m not sure the promises of improivement and reform were ever correctly reviewed in any event.
So, here we are with Kirwan, and I’m just suggesting that the legislative leaders need to be very specific about where they are going to get the money.
They’ve talked about getting hundreds of millions of dollars from a new digital tax on social media advertising. Even if you could do that, and it’s not clear you can legally, that could be years before you actually collect that.
I would urge folks to be supportive of Kirwan in the sense that, within our existing budget, we can adopt some of the reforms they’ve been talking about. But be pretty skeptical of people who say you just have to toe the line and vote for this otherwise we’re going to defeat you at the next election?
R1R: Should Prince George’s County be the only county in Maryland whose county executive cannot raise campaign funds from developers during elections?
Franchot: Well, I’m going to leave that up to the Prince George’s County delegation and County Executive. That was done at Prince George’s request. I recall a grassroots efforts in Prince George’s to say we really want to remove what we think is something that is an attractive nuisance in our political life.
Raising money is the dark side of politics. I am going to leave that up to Prince George’s citizens as to what they want or don’t want.
R1R: The flip side of that question, then, is do you believe a ban on developer money in politics is a good thing in general for the entire state?
Franchot: I would love to have no campaign contributions at all from anybody.
R1R: A public funding option?
Franchot: Just have the campaigns paid for with X amount of money by the government and have oversight restrictions on what you can spend the money on. Have limits. Then people like me wouldn’t have to spend a God-awful amount of time on the phone raising money. I do it because I don’t get any money from the democratic party or the establishment. I just get it from people that say, you know, I like you. I know what you’ve done in the past.
But you have to raise money in this climate because otherwise you just end up a target for people that want to destroy you. It’s not a great system. But I believe in winning campaigns that I get involved in, because otherwise you just end up disappointing the people that support you. They want you to win, and you have some exciting ideas about reform but you just don’t have any money, so you lose all the time.
Winning is better than losing all the time.