Comptroller hopeful Campbell says Md. at risk for financial catastrophe”

By Len Lazarick

Bill Campbell has been the chief financial officer for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, for the Coast Guard and for Amtrak, and now he’s looking to become CFO for the state of Maryland.

“I think Maryland is in very severe financial straits,” Campbell said. That’s why the Republican is running for elected office for the first time, hoping to challenge Democratic Comptroller Peter Franchot in the fall. “I’m deeply concerned that we are about to have a financial catastrophe.”

That’s why the Republican is running for elected office for the first time, hoping to challenge Democratic Comptroller Peter Franchot in the fall.

“It’s not something that I ever wanted to do,” said Campbell, a Columbia resident. But he felt compelled to do it after seeing Franchot earlier this year on a panel about the federal stimulus dollars. He said he spoke to the incumbent afterward.

“I didn’t think he had the skill set for the job,” said Campbell, 63, whose achievements include the Navy’s top civilian award for knocking down the cost of spare parts. Franchot, also 63, is a lawyer and former health care consultant who served 16 years on the House of Delegates Appropriations Committee overseeing the state budget.

Campbell said the comptroller needs to do more to examine revenue estimates and get the state to balance its budget. As vice-chair of the pension system, Franchot also needs to speak up more and demand funding of mounting pension liabilities and retiree health care costs. “To balance the budget, we’ve been underfunding the pension plans,” Campbell said.

As one of the three top state officials on the Board of Public Works that awards all major state contracts, the comptroller needs to examine costs more closely and get the best price possible on contracts, including negotiating prices for pharmaceuticals, Campbell said.

“I think the comptroller can set the tone on purchasing,” he said.

And overall, Franchot needs to do more to improve the business climate. “Job growth has to come from small business, and I don’t think we have the environment that is encouraging to small business.”

Joseph Shapiro, spokesman for the comptroller, said, “This Campbell guy obviously doesn’t pay much attention, since the comptroller does all those things.”

Shapiro said Franchot had opened up the revenue estimating process and gotten the private sector more involved with his “Economic Advisory Forums,” bringing in representatives from different sectors of the economy. Outside economists and staff from the executive branch and legislature also advise the Board of Revenue Estimates.

“It’s a very inclusive process and has been made even more so by Comptroller Franchot,” Shapiro said.

Shapiro said Franchot has also set up a “Business Advisory Council” that he meets with quarterly. He is currently on a “listening tour” of the state, assessing the impact of the recession. “Some business people are pleasantly surprised given his reputation as a delegate from Takoma Park,” Shapiro said, referring to the impression some have of Franchot as a partisan liberal.

He noted that Franchot has repeatedly called for a comprehensive spending review to make state government more efficient, and still believes that would be helpful.

The funding for pension liabilities is “something that has to be changed by the governor and the General Assembly,” Shapiro said.

Campbell’s criticism of Franchot’s role on the Board of Public Works was a bit surprising, given the number of times he has voted against proposals before the board.

“There are countless examples of the comptroller raising his hand and asking tough questions,” Shapiro said. “He’s not afraid to speak up for the best value or the best price or the best idea to spend money. He takes his role as an independent voice and fiscal watchdog pretty seriously.”

Assessing his race, Campbell admitted he’s got a tough challenge.

“My odds are long,” he said, “I’m not doing this because it is easy.”

“I think there will be some anti-incumbency mood,” he added, pointing out that ex-Gov. Bob Ehrlich’s presence at the top of the ticket might produce “some effect from his coattails.” Campbell hopes some independent Democrats will be willing to switch parties.

Before that happens, Campbell must win a primary against Brendan Madigan, an 18-year-old blogger who just graduated from high school and dismisses Campbell’s credentials.

“We do not need a Washington bureaucrat running our state finances, especially at a time when serious budget cuts need to take place,” Madigan said, reacting to Campbell’s filing last month. “I’m not sure that we want the failed financial leadership of Amtrak here in Maryland.”

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