This interview is part of a series of interviews with the Democratic and Republican candidates for Maryland governor in 2022. In these interviews, WTOP asked all the candidates the same or similar questions on education, public safety and crime, jobs and the economy, and transportation. The Maryland primary is July 19.
The candidate: Peter Franchot, Maryland comptroller
Running mate: Monique Anderson-Walker, former District 8 Prince George’s County Council member
Peter Franchot, who has served as Maryland comptroller for 15 years, is by some measure the front-runner in the Democratic primary for governor.
In a crowded race with nearly a third of voters still undecided, Franchot won the support of 20% of Democratic primary voters — putting him in first place, according to a poll this month conducted by The Baltimore Sun and the University of Baltimore.
As comptroller, Franchot holds one of three seats on the state’s powerful Board of Public Works and is responsible for approving millions of dollars in state contracts every year. Franchot says after a decade and a half in the comptroller’s office, voters trust him.
“I think they trust me with their money as comptroller; they’re going to trust me with their money as governor,” he says.
The interview below has been edited for length and clarity.
WTOP: After the pandemic, there are concerns about a so-called learning loss — what kids may have missed out on because they weren’t in the classroom and their routine was absolutely turned upside down. There is a lot of concern about the state of mental health of kids who have to put together new skills that may have languished over the past couple of years. Plus, we’ve got the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future being implemented — the heavy lifting is about to begin. What as governor would you do to help make that happen?
Franchot: Well, I would be considered, I think, at the end of my first term as the greatest governor for education that people have ever had. Because No. 1, I’ll implement the Kirwan blueprint. I’ve had 35 years experience with the budget. Kirwan is not completely funded, so it needs someone like me who can definitely put the numbers together.
But more importantly, I think even with Kirwan, the K-12 system still struggles. Part of it is a hangover from the COVID situation that you mentioned. And obviously, mental health for young people is a super-high priority. But I’m convinced that we need to reduce standardized testing by 90%. I think most of it is not formative testing, where you help the teacher understand how the student’s doing. It’s mostly judgmental tests that are being imposed, because teachers learn very quickly that their careers and their promotions are dependent upon how their kids do on standardized testing. So I would reduce standardized testing by 90%. I’d allow teachers to collectively bargain on class size … because nobody — I don’t care how great a teacher you are — can hold the attention of 30 or 35 kids at a time, and I think it should be down around 20.
And I also am absolutely convinced that our kids have tremendous potential — every single one of them. But they need to have some contact with the real world. They need to have example-based learning, where we actually have interaction with the community; we have interaction with the real financial world: We (should be) teaching kids the skills and knowledge that they need once they graduate from 12th grade, that they need to operate in the modern economy. And most of all, I think our kids lack the self-confidence to deal with the modern economy. So, I advocate — in addition to Kirwan and all the money involved with compensation; I’m fine with what the legislature mandated, and I will implement it — but I’m much more interested in curriculum reform and in igniting the imaginations of students and teachers, and returning the joy of teaching to the classroom.
I know it’s a little bit of philosophical talk, but I think there’s some real detail there. For example … I would set up a self-funded, pre-funded account for teachers that have out-of- pocket expenses for school supplies. I hear all over the state from rank-and-file teachers that they have to take out of their own pocket money to buy supplies for their classrooms. Well, that’s unacceptable in the richest state in the richest country in the world. So I think we can take care of that.
We also are vetting a proposal for post-K-12 education. If you’re a young person and you live, work, pay taxes for five years in the state of Maryland, we’ll forgive your student loan up to certain limits. And if you come to Maryland from another state, we’ll also give you the same treatment. Because we need to attract hundreds of thousands of young adults to Maryland to help us win the economy of the future.
WTOP: You talked about funding and that you could put the numbers together. What would that look like? We’ve had the Thornton plan and the geographic index that had to be paid, which a lot of people grumbled about, in order to make it continue to go. And I know in the past you’ve advocated for making financial literacy a requirement — not just an elective but a requirement. Is that something you still want to do?
Franchot: Yes, financial literacy is critical. I mean, our kids are graduating, frankly, from college and some of them don’t even know you have to repay a loan. They don’t know what compound interest is. They don’t know what a budget is. And as a result, it’s kind of the school of hard knocks — they learn all that. There’s no reason why we can’t give them that as part of the curriculum. So the issue with Kirwan, like Thornton, is that it’s not solidly funded right now. Everybody admits that. They’re delaying Kirwan and they’re also concerned about the lack of funding. I was in the legislature when we passed Thornton and I was told, ‘Don’t worry about the funding. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend is going to get elected governor next year and we’re going to raise the sales tax to pay for Thornton.’ Well, she lost unexpectedly and we had to spend years shoehorning Thorton into an existing budget where there was no designated source of funding. And unfortunately, we’re in somewhat of the same situation with Kirwan.
Having served 20 years on the Appropriations Committee and 16 years as your comptroller, I am expert in exactly what is going on with the state budget and state finances. And we’re going to have to fit into the existing budget, in part because there is no long-term funding for Kirwan right now.
WTOP: Every jurisdiction is now having to formulate their police accountability boards. How do you feel about the way it’s being implemented? Do you see a model out there in any of the counties? And how do you feel about the tension between recruitment and retention and asking police departments to reform?
Franchot: Well, I was in the Army years ago and I always considered myself a professional. And I have zero tolerance, personally, for any kind of police misconduct. I just think it’s completely unacceptable. These are law enforcement professionals. When I was in the Army, I would consider it absolutely anathema to ever harm a civilian — same thing with our police. We need to make sure that they operate at a high degree of professionalism. I also have zero tolerance for crime. And so we need to combine the two interests. And I think that I’m fully capable of doing that. For example, I think what Gov. Hogan did recently in Baltimore City, and I think some other areas around the state, where he sent in the state police and the U.S. Marshals to sweep up repeat violent offenders who had open arrest warrants — I think that should be done on a regular basis.
I also think we should emphasize community policing so that neighborhoods where individuals may have financial pressure, etc. — at least they know who the law enforcement officer is who’s patrolling the streets.
And thirdly, I think we should have a very active recruitment for, particularly, women law enforcement officers. I don’t want to get too much into philosophical stuff here, but I just believe that if there were more women in law enforcement, we would see less aggressive behavior, sometimes, in certain situations. And I would emphasize that. Also in our firefighters, they should have a broader gender diversity.
I’m all about the economy. Without public safety, I say, we can’t really have an economy because people are scared to go out and shop. But I think it’s entirely controllable and doable. It’s not just Baltimore City. It’s also parts of the Washington region — Montgomery and Prince George’s — that’s seeing little up-spikes in crime and carjackings, for example. But all of that can be dealt with through professional law enforcement, using our elite law enforcement to get repeat violent offenders off the street and keep them off. The key is to do that on a sustainable regular basis, what the governor initiated on a one-time basis. And then, of course, doing community policing, more recruitment, more training, and more gender diversity as far as who our law enforcement are
WTOP: Let me ask you about recruitment in terms of morale issues. This is anecdotal, I don’t have numbers on this, that there is a morale issue, that officers feel that no matter what they do, they are going to be scrutinized to a level that makes policing more difficult or sometimes downright impossible.
Franchot: Well, look, every sector that engages with the public is burnt-out, exhausted, overworked and not having the right support services. I mean, look at our nurses — they’re completely exhausted. Look at our teachers, who used to have substitute teachers come in and help out from time to time and give them a break. That doesn’t happen anymore, partly because of COVID, partly because of other reasons. Law enforcement also is suffering from exhaustion and burnout. And we need to obviously regroup, recompensate, reallocate some of our training and our emphasis upon our existing law enforcement.
But they’re not alone. I mean, everyone is adjusting to the COVID consequences, as I call them. And so I do think that there’s a path forward, but it’s going to require us first of all, to have COVID in the rearview mirror, which hopefully it will be from here on out — but there may be some upsurge next year. But the other key ingredient is to, for example, in our school system, get our support staff back, helping them have some help during their normal employment. And nurses also, and then law enforcement officers.
But part of it’s not even that. I think it’s … that they’re not valued and not appreciated. Under a Franchot administration, we’re going to recognize our public employees in a major way. And I hope that that will help heal some of the frustrations that people feel right now. But help is on the way.
Jobs, economy, transportation
WTOP: I know that you are acutely aware of some of the things that bring businesses here; one thing that can repel a business is traffic — concerns about commute times for future employees. How do you see attracting businesses? And do you think that moving ahead with the plan for tolls on I-270 and I-495 is in fact the way to go?
Franchot: Well, first of all, we need a top-to-bottom review of all state taxes, as far as recruiting particularly small businesses through locate and startup here in Maryland. And we also need to look, frankly, with a relatively objective eye at Montgomery County, Prince George’s and other jurisdictions as far as their local regulations. And I hear a lot from small businesses that they’re more heavily regulated than the large businesses. And so I think it’s a bit of an intimidating situation for them.
And as far as the traffic situation, I’m a huge fan of mass transit. As you know, I’ve worked on the Purple Line for years. That finally seems to be corrected and moving forward. I’m in favor of the Red Line up in Baltimore City, which is a much-needed mass transit alternative on the southern side of the city, east to west. And I’m in favor of fixing the American Legion Bridge and expanding 495 improvements back up to the ICC, and up to 270.
I was not in favor of, and had the ask the governor to drop — and he did — the part east of 270 through Montgomery County and Prince George’s County, because that was just too controversial. So we reduced an $18 billion P3 mass highway improvement project by two-thirds, to about $6 billion. A lot of people in my area are very sensitive about highways. I keep telling people, “Yes, look, I’m a No. 1 champion for mass transit. But we can’t forget people that own cars.” I mean, congestion is a huge impediment not just to our economic vitality and prosperity, but also just our ability to live in this region. And so I think we can do both things, we have to have a balanced approach. First and foremost, for me, is mass transit. But right behind it is making sure that the highways are less congested.
WTOP: Would you want to expand MARC service?
Franchot: Yes, absolutely, and that’s a huge help, particularly connecting out to Western Maryland, Hagerstown and Cumberland and Frederick — expanding that, making sure that there is at least one train or two trains during the midday, I think, is very important for commuters, because a lot of people come in during off hours. And so I think there’s a large potential there.
We have an incredible transportation system. I think people forget that most of our vehicles 10 years from now are going to be EVs — they’re going to be electrical cars. And so a lot of the concern about automobile and truck emissions will be lessened because we’re going to be driving vehicles that are powered by electricity. And I’m not offering that as a panacea, but certainly most of the cars that will be crossing the new American Legion Bridge will be electrically powered, and not have fossil fuel emissions.
WTOP: What about the Chesapeake Bay Bridge? What should be the plan moving forward? Should we go forward with that third span that’s along the similar footprint to the current bridge?
Franchot: I’m in favor of another crossing. I know that decision has been rushed forward a little bit as far as where it should be, and there’s a lot of talk about having it at the existing bridge. I’m willing to take a look at that. But it needs more study, because it’s controversial with, obviously, people that are at either end of where the bridge crosses. …
Yes, ultimately, we’re going to need another crossing. I don’t think that it’s been decided as to where it should be or whether the right amount of study has been done. But I would be committed as governor to taking a very serious look at getting that done. We’re going to have a growing economy. I intend to double the state’s economy in eight years. That’s the state’s GDP. And that’s a very ambitious goal. But it requires all parts of the state to be accessible either through mass transit or through vehicular travel. We need to have that. We can’t be like Tysons Corner all the time, that’s for sure.
WTOP: There’s a huge amount of choice in this Democratic field. What sets you apart from others who are running. Some of them have extensive government experience? What makes you different?
Franchot: Well, they’re all terrific people, and they’re very charismatic and I enjoy running with them. But, you know, over the last 16 years, I think the proof is in the pudding. I’ve turned the comptroller’s office into the No. 1 tax administration agency in the country, bar none. We get billions of dollars of refunds back within two and a half business days; we have eliminated most of the fraud that used to be all over the place in false tax refund requests, and we answer the telephone — 800,000 phone calls are answered properly. We’ve turned it into a juggernaut of government efficiency, government effectiveness, customer service. I’m looking forward to doing the same thing for all of the state agencies and returning a sense of trust and confidence in the competence of state government.
So, first three months: I’m going to fix all the potholes on state roads, pick up the trash on state roads, get every agency to do what my agency does, which is answer the phone promptly. And then we’re going to move on to transformative issues like the K-12 education reforms I mentioned and some of the transportation issues that we talked about. But also things like homeownership and health care. These are big issues, but you’ve got to be able to show people we’re competent as far as doing the little things. I’ve done that over 16 years.
On March 10, I announced the $7.5 billion surplus. That’s unheard of in the state of Maryland. It’s one-time-only money, but it shows that we have strong economic bones. And I mentioned right after that I was in favor of a gas tax holiday. I intend to bring that back for a short period of time, because I think that really helps the state’s morale, and it also proves to have a multiplier effect, because out-of-state people come into our wonderful state to buy cheap gas and then spend a lot of money. So, [that’s] a long-winded way of saying I think what sets me apart is that I’ve actually done a lot of what people are going to be voting on around kitchen table issues. I think they trust me with their money as comptroller; they’re going to trust me with their money as governor,
WTOP: How disappointed are you that you didn’t get the 90-day gas tax holiday?
Franchot: I was very disappointed because it’s complicated. I regulate 2,300 gas stations in Maryland. And getting them all to be supportive of this was difficult because it’s a complicated system of taxing gas.
But to their credit, they did the right thing — everybody joined in; it was working very smoothly for 30 days. It could have been easily extended for another 60 days. Once again, this is one-time only, but we were seeing a big upsurge in sales tax revenue from non-gas purchases that were being made. So it was one of those elegant solutions where people basically liked what was happening; we had the money to pay for it, because we had the big surplus; it was benefiting the local economy other than gas — and the rug got pulled out from underneath us, and the legislature refused to extend it.
Yeah, I was frustrated by that. And as governor, we’re going to experiment with that and other short-term tax holidays, because we find that it stimulates the economy and, in fact, ancillary taxable purchases during those time periods compensate in significant part, to the costs. So this is all built around the fact that they’ve got to be limited — I’m not talking about permanent tax cuts and lowering the state’s ability to have all these wonderful services that we have. I’m talking about things that we can do to stimulate the local economy — for example, the tax-free back-to-school shopping in August that’s so successful.
I think there are other concepts that we can do. Maybe we can have a tax relief on craft beer made in Maryland for a week or so, just to get things going. I’m kidding a little bit there. There are lots of things to do if you’re imaginative and fiscally responsible. That’s the key. We can’t just go and say, “Oh, here’s a permanent tax cut on this sector.” You can’t fit that into an ongoing operating budget.
Interview conducted by Kate Ryan; editing by Jack Moore