Cumberland Times-News

September 11, 2013

Franchot discusses local economy, issues

Comptroller wants to be advocate for overlooked areas of state

Matthew Bieniek
Cumberland Times-News

— CUMBERLAND — Maryland Comptroller Peter Franchot doesn’t always play to the crowd, and didn’t back away from his views on slots and gambling even though he was in the backyard of a casino at Rocky Gap that many in the area see as an important economic development tool. Franchot doesn’t see it that way, and doesn’t like slots, at Rocky Gap Casino Resort or anywhere else.

“I think it’s a bad idea for Maryland and I continue to think that,” Franchot said during his Tuesday visit to Cumberland. “It’s a voluntary tax, draining money out of consumers’ pockets ... people should be spending that gambling money on Main Street.” People need to buy things, and gambling losses add to an anemic economic recovery, Franchot said.

Figures from Franchot’s office bear out his diagnosis of economic anemia. General fund revenues for the last fiscal year totaled $14.9 billion ... $62.4 million below the official state forecast, according to statistics from the Comptroller’s Office.

Franchot spoke during an interview at the Times-News and also during a meeting with members of the Allegany County Chamber of Commerce earlier in the day.

On the other hand, Franchot has some views that will strike a chord with many area residents, and be welcomed by local leaders who don’t usually hear state officials agreeing with them about environmental issues.

The comptroller takes it as one of his duties to advocate for areas of the state that feel overlooked. In the state legislature there’s a bias toward the middle part of the state, because “that’s where the votes are,” Franchot said, adding that such a view is short-sighted. Franchot said it is a good idea for Western Maryland to work with those on the Eastern Shore on common issues to try to gain influence in Annapolis.

The coal industry gets a bad rap, Franchot said. He pointed out that he’s the only state official to visit AES Warrior Run, which is a coal-fired power plant. “I was stunned by how efficient and clean it was,” Franchot said.

“I support ... the coal sector,” Franchot said. “I am an environmentalist,” he added, noting that he had strong backing from many environmental groups during his political career. The coal industry is the victim of “cheap shots” for political reasons, Franchot said.

 The comptroller also backs drilling for natural gas in Marcellus shale formations.

“We want to have it done right, but instead the moratorium is becoming a ban,” Franchot said, referring to the moratorium on gas drilling while the governor’s Marcellus Shale Advisory Commission completes its work, expected to be finished in 2014.

If President Barack Obama supports environmentally sound fracking, it should be possible to frack in Maryland, Franchot said. Fracking is a process that pumps water and chemicals into the ground to free natural gas trapped in Marcellus shale formations, which are abundant in Garrett and Allegany counties.

“Let’s get the politics out ... let’s stop fighting ourselves,” Franchot said. “I would urge everyone interested in a safe energy future to change their perspective.”

Franchot also praised Allegany County schools for instituting financial literacy requirements for students. “I would like to see every county require it,” Franchot said. Ignorance of basic finance can “get kids into a lot of trouble,” Franchot said. Students should leave school understanding what credit and compound interest are, for instance, Franchot said.

Franchot also would like schools throughout the state to start after Labor Day.

An economic impact report released by the Bureau of Revenue Estimates regarding a post Labor Day start date states results of an additional $74.3 million in direct economic activity, including $3.7 million in new wages and a separate $7.7 million in state and local revenue, Franchot has said. The 180-day instructional requirement could be met by using other vacation and weather days built into the school year, Franchot said.

He said the idea is gaining support, although not yet from the state board of education.

“The legislature has set up a task force to study the idea, which I appreciate,” Franchot said.

Contact Matthew Bieniek at mbieniek@times-news.com.