Friday, April 18, 2008

The Problem with Peter Franchot

The war of words between Governor Martin O’Malley and Comptroller Peter Franchot escalated yesterday. The Governor branded the Comptroller as a hypocrite for crusading against slots after voting for them in 2001. The Comptroller’s spokesman then referred to the Governor’s “attack” as “unusual” and “regrettable.” But what is truly regrettable is the nature of the Comptroller’s engagement in the state’s political debates.

From the start, Peter Franchot said he was not going to be your grandfather’s sort of Comptroller. He was going to be an activist, independent spokesman for Maryland taxpayers. Boy, I thought, this was going to be great. After all, activist independent spokespeople provide great fodder for bloggers!

Soon enough, the Comptroller proved good on his word. He questioned the need to hold a special session last year. He opposed the computer tax as soon as it was suggested. Senate President Mike Miller criticized Franchot and his staff for being “missing in action this entire year in terms of helping the state solve the budget crisis. ... Certainly, during the entire [22] days of the special session he was gone.” Soon after, Franchot became embroiled in an ugly battle with the Senate over his staffing practices and conduct in office. And that’s to say nothing about his opinions on slots!

Now we try to follow a tradition of constructive criticism on this blog. After our rip-roaring romps against MCDCC last year over its legislative appointment process, Paul Gordon suggested holding mid-term special elections and using a variety of ways to incorporate district resident input into MCDCC votes. When I found the Governor’s original special session package to be regressive, I laid out how to seize tax revenues from cheating employers who were costing the state millions. And when I opposed the computer tax, I suggested a package containing the Governor’s original upper-income tax rates, combined reporting and a corporate tax hike as a replacement.

It is very, very easy to criticize someone else’s ideas. It can be very, very challenging to craft a viable alternative. Franchot’s problem is not that he is an anti-slots liberal or that he butts heads with the Senate President. (After all, someone has to fight with Miller!) It’s that he does not supply us with a better way to deal with our problems. What does a progressive alternative to the things he criticizes look like? I’d really like to know, but he never tells us.

And the slots issue is becoming an excruciatingly difficult one. The latest state budget information holds that if the slots referendum is not passed, the state will face $600 million annual budget deficits forever. Regular readers know that I’m not a fan of slots. But after the legislature’s regressive special session tax package, the most likely alternative to slots money will be more sales tax increases or horrendous budget cuts, possibly to education, health care and transportation. These are really tough choices and any honest person who cares about both preventing slots and pursuing progressive economic policy is going to wrestle with them.

So what is the Comptroller’s recommendation? According to the Post:

Asked by a reporter how he would replace the revenue if the referendum is defeated, Franchot offered no specifics. He said the state should be nurturing the life sciences sector, industries that would presumably contribute more to the tax base upon its growth.
I’m sorry, Mr. Franchot. If you are going to earn my loyalty, you have to do better than that.