In their only scheduled debate on Baltimore television, the four Republican candidates for governor depicted Maryland as overtaxed and overspent under a Democratic administration, creating a climate in which businesses are fleeing to neighboring states.
In the debate, taped Monday afternoon for broadcast Friday, David R. Craig, Ron George, Larry Hogan and Charles Lollar offered a grim assessment of the state's economic outlook as the second and final term of Gov. Martin O'Malley comes to an end.
"Businesses are leaving in droves — to go to Virginia, to Delaware, to West Virginia, to other states," said Hogan, 58, a former Ehrlich administration official, who said the state's "onerous" tax policy is to blame.
"Taxes are out of control here," agreed Lollar, 42, a business executive from Charles County. "Businesses are leaving us at a rapid rate and taking good jobs with them."
What's needed, all four said, are cuts, in varying degrees, to the corporate and income tax rates.
The GOP candidates fielded questions for an hour at the Owings Mills studio of Maryland Public Television in a debate that will be aired at 7 p.m. Friday on MPT and WBAL-TV. Answering questions posed both by the audience and WBAL's Deborah Weiner, they spent much of the debate drawing contrasts between their respective positions and those of O'Malley, who is prevented by term limits from running again. The primary is June 24.
Craig, 64, the Harford County executive for the past eight years, cited his experience in that job. "My plan is to take the success we've had in Harford County and take it to the state level," he said, adding that Harford has 8,000 more jobs than it did during the recession in 2008. He said the county cut property taxes and "created a very good department of economic development" to achieve that growth.
George, 60, a state delegate and jewelry store owner from Annapolis, said his experience as a small businessman makes him well suited to improve the state's business climate.
Craig and Lollar have both released plans to gradually eliminate the personal income tax, the state's single largest revenue source. George has not matched that promise but has vowed to cut income taxes by 10 percent and roll back the corporate income tax. Hogan has said he would propose specific cuts to state spending, starting with those recommended by auditors, before pushing a tax cut proposal.
In previous debates, the Republicans had rarely engaged or confronted each other. That was largely true Monday, although there was a notable confrontation between George and Hogan, who led the Republican field in a Baltimore Sun poll in February.
Responding to a question about businesses leaving the state, George suggested that Hogan has overstated the value and popularity of Change Maryland, Hogan's self-described "nonpartisan grass-roots" organization advocating fiscal restraint.
George, a House Ways and Means Committee member, said he and other small-business owners have routinely testified in the General Assembly about the state's business climate.
"All these business organizations come in to testify. They get in the game like I did," George said. "Change Maryland has never come in to testify on any of these bills. So to say it's a grass-roots organization — to those on Ways and Means it's an insult." He said information that Change Maryland releases on such topics as the number of businesses leaving the state is available online from other sources. "All the ones he says he uncovered and did the studies for, they've been out there," George said.
Hogan quickly countered.
"Since he took a little shot at Change Maryland, I just wanted to respond to that," Hogan said. "Change Maryland has been the leading voice of opposition to the failed economic policies of the O'Malley-Brown administration. We are the ones that did all these studies. We are the one that totaled up the number of businesses that left the state. We're the ones that totaled up the impact of the 40 consecutive tax hikes that have taken $9.5 billion out of the pockets of struggling Maryland families and small businesses."
It wasn't the first time George has criticized Change Maryland, which Hogan chairs.
George and Craig have previously said that Change Maryland illegally coordinated its activities with Hogan's official election committee.
Hogan's campaign said it had checked with the elections board and followed its "explicit guidance" before it legally acquired Change Maryland, which Hogan formed in 2011 as a limited liability corporation. Lollar has not been part of the criticism of Hogan.
During the debate, the candidates all lamented Maryland's repeal of the death penalty. But with the General Assembly dominated by Democrats, Hogan said: "I'm not sure we're going to be able to revisit it."
In addition to holding multiple forums, the Republicans had previously debated on WBAL radio and, last Saturday, on television in Salisbury. Craig, Lollar and George took part in a debate on Fox 45 in Baltimore in January before Hogan — the front-runner in fundraising as well as recent polls — had entered the race.
Monday presented a chance for the candidates to reach a critical audience — Republican-rich Baltimore County.
Other Republican strongholds in Maryland, largely in the western portion of the state, are not as populated as Baltimore County, said political analyst Mileah Kromer.
"When you look at the demographics of Baltimore County, this was a chance to reach Republicans in a place with a high population density," said Kromer, director of the Sarah T. Hughes Field Politics Center at Goucher College.
Unlike some others, the rules of Monday's debate allowed for rebuttals and counter-rebuttals.
"This was the closest thing to a debate than any of the others," George said.
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