Republican Larry Hogan denounced Democrat Anthony G. Brown's handling of Maryland's health exchange Monday during their second televised debate, calling the website a "complete disaster."
Brown refused to give in, acknowledging that the launch went poorly but pointing to 400,000 Marylanders who obtained health coverage and statistics showing a drop in uncompensated care at Maryland hospitals. He said the state has become one of the most competitive markets in the country.
"We rolled up our sleeves and got it done," Brown said of the state's efforts to correct the website's problems. "It wasn't pretty," he added. State officials now say they have signed up more than 450,000 people for new or improved plans but can't tell how many already had insurance.
The back and forth over health care, a topic not addressed during the first debate last week, was part of a wide-ranging and combative debate in which both candidates for governor were thrown on the defensive by the other's accusations.
"Everything you said is absolutely false," Hogan said in response to Brown's accusation that the Republican would try to roll back Maryland's ban on assault weapons and strict background checks for handgun purchases. It was one of several times he accused Brown of lying.
Hogan pledged that he would enforce the O'Malley administration gun law and had no plans to quietly roll it back, saying he was "very supportive" of the assault weapon and background check provisions despite opposing the bill. The Republican also repeated that he would not cut any money from public school construction, disavowing part of a list his campaign put out that included $450 million in such funds as wasteful spending.
"I'm not going to cut one penny in school construction," Hogan said.
In response to questions during the hourlong debate, taped Monday morning for rebroadcast Monday night and Tuesday night, the two candidates painted starkly different pictures of Maryland and its economy.
By Hogan's account, it is a state in crisis, with companies and individuals heading for other states to escape high tax rates. The Republican pointed out, as he does at almost every appearance, that the number of businesses in Maryland has declined by 8,688 since Gov. Martin O'Malley took office — a result Hogan blames entirely on administration policies.
"The lieutenant governor likes to say he wants to build a better Maryland for more Marylanders, but for the last eight years he's made it a worse Maryland for more Marylanders," Hogan said. "The economy's a mess, and everyone in Maryland seems to know it except" Brown.
Brown, in contrast, pointed to the state's highly rated schools, No. 1 Chamber of Commerce ranking for entrepreneurship and recent improvements in college affordability. He praised the state's success in helping to attract an Amazon distribution center with an estimated 1,200 jobs to Baltimore and pointed to the expansion plans of several large Maryland companies as evidence that Maryland is a good place to do business.
As in the first debate, Brown said repeatedly that he would not raise taxes. Hogan countered that Brown and O'Malley had made similar promises before the last election and then supported tax hikes.
With three weeks to go before the Nov. 4 election, the two have been trying to get the attention of Maryland voters, many of whom have not firmly made up their minds. A poll for The Baltimore Sun, published Sunday, showed Brown with a modest lead of 49 percent to 42 percent.
During the debate, Brown repeatedly took Hogan to task for actions of the administration of Republican former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., in which Hogan served. When Hogan mentioned an increase in education spending under Ehrlich, Brown pounced, saying Hogan should also take responsibility for a 40 percent increase in college tuition at some state schools under his former boss..
"You can't only take the good and not the bad," Brown told Hogan, who has distanced himself from several decisions by Ehrlich. Brown reminded him that the state's property tax increased under Ehrlich and contended that Hogan would raise it again.
"I can't be blamed for everything that happened in the Ehrlich administration," Hogan protested, denying any plan to raise the property tax.
The two staked out starkly different positions on environmental issues, with Hogan calling for scrapping the stormwater cleanup fees that he calls "the rain tax" and Brown stressing the importance of the fees in cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay.
"It's actually insulting to call it a rain tax. We're not taxing the rain," Brown said.
Hogan said he agrees stormwater cleanup is important but that the state should have allowed local governments to decide for themselves how to pay for the job — not require them to impose new fees.
Hogan also criticized the administration's environmental record, pointing to the transfer of $1.3 billion from environment accounts to the general fund to balance the state budget. Brown replied that there "wasn't a program in the state that didn't take a cut in the recession."
Brown hammered Hogan over the issue of guns, pointing to the Republican's opposition to the 2013 state gun control law banning the sale of certain assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, as well as requiring strict background checks for purchasers of handguns.
When Brown accused him of opposing those individual provisions, which were opposed fiercely by General Assembly Republicans, Hogan said he approved of those measures. He said he didn't support the bill because he didn't think it was strong enough in keeping guns out of the hands of the mentally ill.
That statement appears to be at odds with comments he made during the primary. At a June 12 GOP candidate forum, for example, Hogan was asked what could be done about the new law, known as Senate Bill 281.
At the time, Hogan said: "It think it's unlikely that it's going to be repealed, given that the Democrats in the legislature just rammed it through. But I am a strong supporter of the Second Amendment. I opposed SB 281. There are things we can do administratively at the executive branch level to change some of the definitions, and so that we're making it easier for law-abiding citizens to own firearms."
In an interview after the debate, Hogan denied Brown's accusation that the Republican had made secret promises to gun rights groups, as reported recently by The Washington Post.
"I haven't made any secret deals. We're going to be enforcing the law," Hogan said.
Todd Eberly, a political scientist at St. Mary's College, said both candidates did well in Monday's debate, with no obvious winner or loser.
Maryland Policy & Politics
"They both had moments when they were particularly strong," Eberly said.
Eberly said Brown showed more personality than he sometimes does. "You got hints of Brown's passion — something he needs to let out more," Eberly said.
However, he said, Hogan had a ready rejoinder for Brown's talk about the changes he wants to make: Why didn't he do it over the past eight years?
The debate, taped Monday morning, will be rebroadcast Monday at 8 p.m. on WUTB Channel 24 in Baltimore. Maryland Public Television will rebroadcast it Tuesday at 7 p.m.
The debate was the second of three scheduled encounters between Brown and Hogan before the election, The next will take place Saturday at an MPT studio in Owings Mills.