Maryland Comptroller Peter Franchot is a busy man. Even though it’s not an election year for him until 2022, Franchot has been making the rounds, as he says he does every year, keeping in touch with the state’s business people, agencies, local lawmakers and community groups.
A peek at his Twitter feed shows recent visits to a small produce business in Easton, a Prince George’s County Parks activity center and a Dundalk fire station to honor first responders.
During a conversation with Washington Jewish Week, the third-term comptroller, who is often characterized as “activist,” Franchot addressed his controversial involvement in the craft beer industry and school construction, and the new tax changes.
So, you’re making the rounds, post-General Assembly. Is this your normal routine?
I made 1,000 visits to small business over the last 12 years. Showing up as a state official is beneficial to the areas that I’m able to visit. It’s mostly showing up, doing my job being a fiscal moderate, not being a partisan advocate all the time. I think people appreciate just having access. For 12 years I’ve really focused on customer service and for the next four years, I’m going to focus on transparency, accountability, competence and integrity — as something that is important for state, local, municipal and county governments everywhere.
How much did the Trump tax changes affect Marylanders and how you do your job?
People paid fewer taxes because of the Trump tax cut, but it had a counter-intuitive increase to their state tax responsibility. So, if they didn’t adjust their withholdings, they were paying more than expected. The state bank account as a result got a windfall of almost $1.2 billion from the federal tax cuts. On a net basis, most Marylanders paid less taxes because of the federal tax cut, but there were a lot questions from taxpayers, why they were paying more.
My recommendation to them is adjust their withholding, because otherwise next year they’re going to end up with the same situation.
You really have the reputation of being more of an activist comptroller, on issues such as the school schedule, school air conditioning, craft beer. Is that just part of your personality, or part of your mission?
I think it’s from the time I spent in the legislature, 20 years. I had a pretty broad agenda on the Appropriations Committee. And the Board of Public Works, this unique three-member panel that meets every two weeks, we approve $450 million, on average, at every meeting, in contracts. So that is a fairly broad landscape. [Former comptrollers] Louis Goldstein and William Donald Schaefer, they benefited from the bully pulpit, like I do, but they didn’t really get heavily involved in issues.
And those are issues that I identify as something we could do in government that make people happy. It’s not big drags on the economy, one way or the other. These are not big comptroller-type issues, but they are issues, as a statewide official, that I can communicate to people saying, look, in addition to getting your refund back quickly, in addition to answering the phone within 40 seconds, the comptroller is interested in doing some things that improve the quality of your life.
There is much concern in the Jewish community about anti-Semitism and the rise of white nationalism and security at schools and synagogues. What can be done to make schools and synagogues safer?
There’s a lot of anti-Semitism building out there. It’s always been around, it’s kind of like racism, it just exists and it generally is kept below the radar screen. But now with all of these worldwide movements, and Trump himself, you end up with a thinly veiled lack of security, I guess, is a way to describe it.
But, Virginia Beach is something that is completely and utterly unacceptable, just like Pittsburgh. And the solution, obviously, if anybody was semi-objective, is to limit the guns that are available to people.
And number two, white nationalism and anti-Semitism, which is on the rise in France and England and Italy, and everywhere around the world, is because of failures of leadership. Right now, Donald Trump is staining the country with this wink-and-a nod approach he has to these very violent, unhinged individuals that belong to these organizations.
So, replacing Trump and other leaders who refuse to crack down on violence would be a good goal for the voters. And I happen to believe the voters down the road are going to stigmatize the type of Trump rhetoric that in part is responsible for Pittsburgh, and Virginia Beach, to pick two of many tragedies.
Susan C. Ingram is a reporter for Baltimore Jewish Times, an affiliated publication of WJW.