— Republican gubernatorial candidate Larry Hogan promised government officials from across the state Saturday that he would usher in a "new era of state and county cooperation," while Democratic rival Anthony G. Brown vigorously defended Maryland's strategy for cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay.

The two candidates appeared separately on stage at the closing session of the Maryland Association of Counties summer convention. It was one of the closer encounters the two have had since winning their party primaries June 24, but too distant to resemble a debate.

Hogan, going first, slammed the record of the O'Malley-Brown administration on virtually every front, accusing it of driving businesses out of Maryland with its tax and regulatory policies and harming the budgets of local governments.

"The incumbent administration has balanced their bloated budgets on the backs of local governments, small business and struggling Maryland families," Hogan told several hundred delegates.

While Hogan criticized the administration's spending, he also promised spending of his own. He told the county and Baltimore City officials that during his first year in office he would fully restore local highway aid that Gov. Martin O'Malley cut from the state budget during the depths of the recession and never fully restored — a promise with an estimated cost of $350 million. Brown also promised a restoration of the aid, but over a "reasonable" time period.

Hogan reminded the delegates of the times the administration made moves that were unpopular at the local level — including the shift of part of the responsibility for teachers' pensions to the counties.

"Time and time again, they have shirked their responsibilities, pushed unfunded mandates down to you and even tried to usurp your authority in local planning and zoning decisions," he said.

One Hogan gambit appeared to backfire. Trying to make a point that residents were fleeing Maryland in droves, he asked for a show of hands from people who know someone who has left the state or is thinking of doing so. In a Hogan ad aired during the primary campaign, the response was virtually unanimous. But in the convention hall Saturday only a small minority put hands in the air.

Brown, in response to a question on the environment, took direct aim at Hogan's stance on an issue he views as a winner for Republicans — the stormwater cleanup fees he derides as "the rain tax."

The lieutenant governor accused Hogan of minimizing the problem by using that phrase.

"You can't say you support protecting the bay if you call for the rollback of the stormwater management program. It's a federal requirement," Brown said.

He called for broadening support for the fees by driving home the point that stormwater programs are not just about the bay but also address flood control.

"It's stormwater and sewage that often backs up in basements and backyards," Brown said.

Hogan has called for a shift in state environmental strategy to one that focuses on silt buildup behind the Conowingo Dam — a priority that puts him at odds with most environmental groups.

Brown also came out swinging on the issue of taxes and education. He charged that Hogan would propose "corporate giveaways" in the tax code while failing to fund pre-kindergarten education, which he described as a key to closing the "achievement gap" between children of differing incomes and races.

Brown played one of his stronger cards by telling the delegates that he would put running mate Ken Ulman, Howard County executive and a past president, in charge of a council on intergovernmental relations.

The forum occupied a spot in the convention program that is traditionally filled by Maryland's governor. However, this year O'Malley decided to forgo what would have been his last closing address in favor of a political foray into New Hampshire.

The event was carefully choreographed to avoid any face-to-face confrontation between the two candidates. Attendance was sparse, as many delegates chose the beach or an early start to their trip home over the highly scripted event.

Hogan expressed disappointment at the format.

"I wish we'd had the opportunity to really have a back-and-forth," he said.

Donald F. Norris, chairman of the public policy department at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, said Brown's reluctance to engage is no surprise, given his party's dominance.

"There's no reason for the front-runner to give the challenger any more opportunity to interact than necessary," he said. "It's not in the interest of the front-runner to do that."

Norris said history shows that the leader does not pay a political price for avoiding an opponent.

michael.dresser@baltsun.com