The Worst Week in Annapolis



Peter Franchot, come on down. You had the worst week in Annapolis.

The Comptroller, who spends a lot of time at press conferences and photo ops around the state, may need to stay in his office for a while. That’s the conclusion that many will reach after reading a recent report by the Office of Legislative Audits.

According to the report, the Comptroller’s Office misclassified 14,000 tax returns resulting in $8.7 million being sent to the wrong towns in Montgomery County.  The auditors also raised questions about the handling of out-of-state claims, the security of information held by the office and the sending of replacement checks.

Although Franchot immediately called his office the best in the country, the problem areas cited are at the very heart of the job of the state’s tax collector.  Showing a combative style in his response, Franchot blamed the problems on predecessors despite the fact that he has been in office since 2007.  Which makes his assurance that the issues are being immediately corrected seem of dubious credibility.

To put this in perspective, auditors always find problems.  Some are relatively minor and can be resolved by tweaking procedures.  Others are  significant and may require major adjustments in processes.  Responses from agencies often include promises to “do better” or even to say that the problems have already been resolved.  Most audits get no public attention.

However, Franchot, as a matter of choice and political strategy, has made himself one of the highest profile office holders in the state.  He craves press attention and has a staff that is quite skilled at getting him the spotlight.

One of his methods of getting coverage is to pick public fights with other officials.  Recent targets include the President of the Senate, Mike Miller, and Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz.  During his previous terms, he was frequently critical of Governor Martin O’Malley.  Franchot has also used his seat on the Board of Public Works to go after public employees who have had to accept his grandstanding without comment.

In addition, the Comptroller has increasingly tied his political fortunes to the state’s Republican Governor, Larry Hogan.  While Franchot has cast that relationship as an example of bipartisanship and commitment to fiscal restraint, many others see it as a calculated abandonment of whatever principles he once supported and a betrayal of the Democratic Party that got him into office in the first place.

For all these reasons, Franchot can expect neither support nor sympathy from other Democrats with respect to the audit findings.  By devoting as much time as he does to extracurricular activities–those that have nothing to do with the job of Comptroller–Franchot has set himself up for the charge that he has not been minding the store.

Another story this past week featured the Comptroller being the bearer of bad news about the state’s anticipated revenues.   Franchot is the chair of the Board of Revenue Estimates which is charged with determining how much money that state will take in from various sources.  The accuracy of those estimates is an essential component of the State’s budget process.

Franchot announced that Maryland would be collecting about $800 million less than had been anticipated in the last round of estimates.  That’s the largest shortfall since the 2010 recession and suggests one of two problems.  The first is that the Board of Revenue Estimates had a faulty set of assumptions built into their prior effort.  Revenue estimates are far from an exact science, but being reasonably accurate is essential to realistic budgeting.

The other explanation, which is the one the Comptroller emphasized, is that the state’s economy is much weaker than state leaders had been describing even recently.  Franchot used the words “stagnant” and “volatile” to characterize the economy.  That new reality undercuts his dear friend, Governor Hogan, who has claimed that his administration has revived the economy by making Maryland “open for business” and by cutting back on burdensome regulations.

State Budget Secretary David Brinkley argued that Maryland actually has a spending rather than revenue problem, a bit of transparent nonsense in light of the significantly weak performance of the economy.  Brinkley’s assertion is an effort to support Hogan’s argument that the General Assembly should reduce the amount of funding mandated by law.

Let’s be clear that the largest category that fits that description is state aid for education.  Hogan has frequently bragged that he has put the most money into education of any governor, but neglected to mention that he was required by law to do that.  What is clear from his comments and those of Brinkley is that Hogan would actually like to reduce education funding in Maryland.

I want to close the circle on Franchot’s bad week.  In focusing his public efforts on criticizing Baltimore City and County officials for not moving as fast as he would like in getting air conditioners in all schools and in his devotion to a post-Labor Day start to the school year, Franchot has been missing in action on the question of school funding.  During O’Malley’s tenure, he made comments similar to Brinkley’s about the budget problems involving spending rather than revenues.

Whether any of the news from last week hurts Franchot’s chances for reelection is beside the point.  As much as he loves attention, the news in which he was front and center last week showed a politician more interested in headlines than substance.  His knee-jerk support for everything Hogan does leaves him drifting far from the important policy issues facing the state.

For all these reasons, Peter Franchot had the worst week in Annapolis.