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Liquor board reform bills face questions in committee

ANNAPOLIS – In the fallout from the liquor board bribery scandal, several bills are making their way through the General Assembly and their proposers facing questions from members of their own party.

Presidents’ Day was a full day in the House of Delegates Economic Matters Committee, with over 60 bills related to alcohol on the docket. Among those were three proposals to reform the county Board of License Commissioners, commonly known as the liquor board. County Executive Rushern Baker, III (D) and Gov. Larry Hogan (R) each put forth proposals for consideration, while the county delegation suggested a study of best practices.

According to Del. Alonzo Washington (D-22), the delegation bill would create a panel to study how other counties handle liquor board appointments, the body’s powers and other factors with an eye to “including ways to make the process more fair, effective and responsive to the needs of the county and the communities.”

Hogan’s proposal, the Liquor Board Reform Act of 2017, differs from the others in that it applies to almost all liquor boards in the state. Matthew Palmer, a deputy legislative officer in Hogan’s office, said the bill was a priority for the administration.

“The governor truly feels that this is a piece of reform that needs to be taken up as soon as possible,” Palmer said. “I know there are some local bills which make changes in this area but this is a wholesale, across-the-board reform because we feel it needs to include all liquor boards in the state.”

The bill would add to state law the requirement for each county’s senators to make their liquor board nominations to the governor in writing, and for those nominees to undergo a criminal background check before being appointed. The governor would still have final authority to make those appointments.

“We’re not changing any of the appointment processes. There are various appointment processes across the state that are used. We do not make any changes to that. We layer things on top of that,” Palmer said.

The other change proposed would bring the liquor board members statewide under the requirements of Maryland ethics laws. Del. Mark Fisher (R-Calvert County) wanted to know if those laws would prevent conflicts of interest with liquor board appointees having family members in the industry they regulate.

“Would one of the requirements be, under Maryland Public Ethics law, that if you serve on the liquor board, you can't have a relative or husband who works at an establishment (selling alcohol)?” Fisher asked.

Palmer said he couldn’t say with certainty, but would look into the matter.

“There are obviously conflicts of interest that are written within state ethics law, so I think somewhere within that would cover that,” he said.

Del. Rick Impallaria (R-Baltimore and Harford counties) said he had serious concerns about the background check component of the proposal and whether that would prevent problems like Prince George’s County experienced.

“I checked, and none of the people implicated in that incident had criminal backgrounds. So I don't understand how that would fix that problem,” he said. “Here you have a crime committed, or an alleged crime committed, by a bunch of men who would’ve passed this criminal background check. But now anybody who has anything on their record will now be under scrutiny, and you haven’t told us what that scrutiny will be.”

Palmer said the General Assembly has required many state employees and appointees to undergo background checks in the past.

“Here is a list of all the positions that require, in state law right now, that anyone serving at least subject yourself to a criminal background check. It’s rather extensive,” Palmer said. “This is not an unusual thing.”

The committee also heard about Baker’s reform proposal, which applies only for Prince George’s County. It would give the county executive the authority to appoint liquor board members and bring board appointees and inspectors under county ethics laws.

Kenneth Battle, legislative liaison, said the Baker Administration is committed to working with stakeholders to reconcile some of the competing proposals currently in play.

“This bill represents the county executive's initial thoughts on restructuring the liquor board,” Battle said. “We’re aware of the fact that there are several proposals out there and we look forward to working with the delegation trying to come up with a reasonable proposal that works for all sides.”

Although no members of the Economic Matters Committee raised questions about the bill, later that evening during the Prince George’s County House delegation’s hearing on it, Del. Carolyn Howard (D-24) did so. She said she was concerned with consolidating more power in the executive branch.

“I don’t see how this would make it better than it is now,” Howard said. “I don’t know how many people are on the central committee, but taking it from that number down to one person seems like a pile-on, giving authority over everything in this county to one place.”

She also said she felt the central committee “was doing a wonderful job” and she would not want them cut out of the process, as both Baker’s and Hogan’s proposals do.

The delegation also heard testimony from their senate colleague, C. Anthony Muse (D-26), regarding one of his liquor board scandal-related initiatives: a repeal of the Sunday sales bill that was at the center of the bribery allegations involving lobbyists and at least one former delegate.

Muse said he voted against the bill when it first came up because he felt 100 permits for the entire county was too low and created an uncomfortable situation for senators.

“To give me as a senator maybe 12 (permits), and then with 100 or more businesses in my district vying for one, it sets it up for competition,” Muse said.

He said during its subcommittee deliberations, the House delegation may want to look into amending the bill to include public input on Sunday sales through a referendum.

“You may want to add an amendment to this bill, or maybe put in another bill, to put it to referendum,” Muse said. “Maybe let our residents decide.”

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