Where do you want to fly?

ANNAPOLIS — The brew-haha between Maryland Comptroller Peter Franchot and legislators trying to remove alcohol regulation from his office escalated Thursday as both sides conducted news conferences in which they claimed the high road.

Franchot said the task force headed by Hagerstown attorney Bruce Poole that studied alcohol regulations last fall found no fault with his office’s field inspections or enforcement. Therefore, an effort to take that responsibility from his office was “reckless, costly and unnecessary,” Franchot said. And worse.

“It’s political retribution at the behest of economic interests that want to protect their market share,” he said.

Since the task force was created — through legislation the Maryland General Assembly passed last year — Franchot has said it was because of his support for the small craft-brewing industry. He contends it has angered powerful lawmakers he accuses of being influenced by lobbyists for big businesses.

Franchot cited a report from the state’s Bureau of Revenue Estimates that estimated the change could cost taxpayers nearly $50 million over the next five years.

The report also describes how removing regulation from the comptroller’s office would strip access to sensitive tax information, which is fundamental to its enforcement power. It cited potential disruption of tobacco enforcement policies that could jeopardize hundreds of millions of dollars in tobacco settlement money over the five years.

Jeff Kelly, the director of the Field Enforcement Division in the comptroller’s office, emphasized that no one has criticized the work of his division.

“This legislation seems like a solution in search of a problem,” Kelly said.

But proponents of the legislation, sponsored by Sen. Ben Kramer, D-Montgomery, and Del. Warren Miller, R-Howard/Carroll, said the issue is not the quality of enforcement. “We found that the field enforcement division is doing a good job,” Poole said.

They say it’s the need to emphasize health, safety and welfare issues related to alcohol.

“Other states have gone forward and adopted what’s called a ‘health in all policies assessment,’ which is lacking” in Maryland, Poole said. “Maryland, by a study that was published in the American Journal for Preventive Medicine, was ranked in the second to last category for effective policies that can help to deal with alcohol issues.”

The Maryland Department of Health tracks alcohol-related deaths. Poole noted that from 2007 through 2017, that number went up nearly 300 percent.

That, he said, was “the most damning part of the indictment for Maryland” for him. “It’s not as though this is a question in search of a problem.”

“We did recommend to establish a new separate agency in charge of regulating and enforcing alcohol, tobacco and motor fuels in Maryland and related public-health considerations,” he added.

“It’s nothing against the comptroller. It’s just the comptroller, by definition, is a tax collector. … His people don’t have a focus in public health considerations. And you can notice from the actions of the past 10 or 12 years, that’s not been the focus of the comptroller’s office relative to alcohol,” he said. “It’s understandable. But we can make a substantial difference if we draw on the expertise of public health officials, and put them in charge of what reasonable policy should be.”

Kramer called Franchot’s estimate of the cost for the new agency “fiction that we have heard coming out of the comptroller’s office.” Legislative analysts estimate the change would cost $4 million in the first year, and $700,000 or more for the next four.

The bill is scheduled for hearing Friday in the Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.