Gov. Larry Hogan and Comptroller Peter Franchot appeared Friday at a discussion at the North Bethesda Marriott Conference Center sponsored by the Greater Bethesda Chamber of Commerce and Bethesda Magazine Credit: Andrew Metcalf

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan said Friday morning the private sector would likely do a better job of selling alcohol than Montgomery County.

“I think that the private sector does a pretty good job selling alcohol,” Hogan said. “It probably does a better job than the government does.”

Hogan spoke about the county’s Department of Liquor Control during a discussion with state Comptroller Peter Franchot at the Bethesda North Marriott Hotel & Conference Center sponsored by the Greater Bethesda Chamber of Commerce and Bethesda Magazine. Journalist Lou Peck, the magazine’s political editor, moderated the discussion.

Hogan said that while he does not want to interfere with the county’s decision on what to do with its controversial Department of Liquor Control (DLC), which controls almost all the wholesale distribution of alcohol in the county as well as the retail sale of liquor, he did say the government shouldn’t be in the alcohol business.

“To me it just doesn’t make any sense,” Hogan said. “We’re not doing it anywhere else, why should the government be in the liquor business? I think maybe the Montgomery County government, it’s OK if they want to drink alcohol, but I don’t think they should sell alcohol.”

Franchot, a longtime critic of the DLC, continued his own crusade against the department Friday.

Advertisement

“Getting government out of the liquor business should have happened yesterday,” Franchot said. “Talk about a popular issue, if it ever got to the ballot, 80 percent of the public would support it.”

Franchot acknowledged that a county task force is analyzing what changes, if any, should be made to the department that generates about $30 million in annual profits for the county. The decision about what to do with the DLC, if anything, will ultimately fall on County Executive Ike Leggett.

“I’m not in favor of any of this fine-tuning—can we do this, can we do that—just get the government out of the liquor business and join the rest of the state in providing to our consumers and small businesses basic customer service,” Franchot said.

Advertisement

The DLC task force has held three meetings and has put forth a number of proposals on how to alter the department’s monopoly structure to deal with concerns expressed by consumers, the owners of restaurants and privately owned beer and wine stores. The individuals and businesses have previously complained about the department’s lack of product selection, customer service and pricing. Since the complaints surfaced about two years ago, the county has attempted to overhaul the department by hiring new management and putting into place a long-term improvement plan.

Leggett as well as eight of the nine members of the County Council—excluding Roger Berliner—have defended the department and said the revenue it generates is important for funding county priorities such as school construction. The revenue also is used to pay off approximately $100 million in bonds, the officials say.

However, council member George Leventhal, who attended the moderated discussion, said in an interview with Bethesda Beat that he would now propose selling the rights to distribute liquor in the county.

Advertisement

“I think we should sell the rights, access to our market,” Leventhal said. He said selling the rights would help the county pay off the bonds it has issued that are secured with liquor revenue.

Leventhal has expressed interest in running for county executive in 2018, when Leggett has said he will not run for a fourth term.

Council member Marc Elrich, who has also been rumored to be considering a run for county executive, said after the discussion that the department’s revenue is important to the county.

Advertisement

Elrich said he would recommend the county continue to hire qualified professionals to run the liquor distribution system, as Leggett has done over the past year. The department should be run as if it were a private business, he said.

“I would make it so the customer wouldn’t know whether they were in a private liquor store or a county liquor store,” Elrich said. “I basically would make this a system that you would think is a private system and keep the revenue.”