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Elections

Inflation, gas prices on the minds of voters as governor candidates talk jobs, investments in workers

They’ve outlined lofty visions for increased wages and tens of thousands of new jobs. They’ve talked about investments in transportation, education and small businesses.

But among all the policy plans and stump speeches from Maryland’s candidates for governor, the most pressing economic concerns of voters this year are seldom mentioned.

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“It’s making it tougher to do anything, to save anything,” Tad Trias, a Severna Park resident, said of mounting inflation that’s affecting everything from groceries to gas. “I’ve definitely been a little bit more conscious of what I’m buying, when I’m buying it.”

Trias, 54, said he recently left his full-time position as an electrical engineer and has been taking on odd jobs, driving more and facing higher gas prices.

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He was among the likely primary election voters who responded to a recent statewide poll by ranking inflation, the cost of living or related economic concerns as the topic they most want the next governor to tackle when two-term Republican Gov. Larry Hogan leaves office early next year.

About a quarter of Republicans and a fifth of Democrats said it was their No. 1 priority, virtually tied at the top with rising crime, the May 27 to June 2 Baltimore Sun Media/University of Baltimore poll found.

Nearly two-thirds of Democrats and a whopping 81% percent of Republicans also said they had changed their behavior in some way because of inflation, the survey also showed.

“I’m preparing for the long haul,” said Dean Dworkin, a respondent from Columbia who said he’s had to put more money on credit cards lately and is not even thinking about selling his 15-year-old Hyundai Elantra because of the “ridiculous” price of both new and used cars.

Inflation, which hit 8.6% in May, is at its highest mark in four decades and has become a central issue in elections across the country. President Joe Biden has named it his domestic priority and on Wednesday called for a suspension of federal gas taxes.

Still, Maryland’s nine-candidate Democratic field has largely avoided talking about inflation, while Republican front-runner Kelly Schulz has made it one of her premier issues, devoting thousands of dollars to ads placing the blame on Democrats, while saying she’ll help struggling families.

The problem, experts say, is the eventual winner won’t have much power to do anything about it.

“This is one of those years where what people are most concerned about are a couple of issues that governors do not have that much influence over,” said Robert Lynch, a professor of economics at Washington College on the Eastern Shore.

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Worldwide supply-and-demand factors emerging from the coronavirus pandemic, along with the war in Ukraine, are driving up prices, Lynch said. While state governments can take some measures to alleviate the pain, it’s mostly out of their hands.

Even suspending state gas taxes — as Maryland did for 30 days earlier this year — can be risky, Lynch said. Less revenue generated from the taxes means fewer resources to fix roads and bridges, which in turn means more expensive repairs down the line, he said.

Most of the Democratic candidates have said they’d support another state gas tax holiday.

Comptroller Peter Franchot, who the Sun/UB poll showed leading the field, has called for another four-month suspension and a one-year pause on the automatic tax increase. The tax is linked to inflation and is set to rise about 7 cents per gallon on Friday.

Franchot has argued that the state’s historic $7.5 billion budget surplus could absorb the lost revenue. Former U.S. Education Secretary John King, in a debate this month, was the only Democrat who called the suspension a “gimmick.” He said he’d rather invest the money in public transportation and electric vehicles.

On the Republican side, Dan Cox, a state delegate from Frederick County, has called for suspending the gas tax, while Schulz has vowed to eliminate the law tying it to inflation. Labeling it the “inflation tax,” she’s railed against it repeatedly on the campaign trail.

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“Like you, I feel the pain of inflation every single day,” Schulz, a former state lawmaker and commerce secretary endorsed by Hogan, said in a recent radio ad. “Yet, progressive politicians in Annapolis raised the gas tax and tied it to inflation, making life even more unaffordable for hardworking Marylanders.”

Lynch said that message might resonate with voters, but is not particularly sound economic policy when trying to fight inflation.

“It’s wise to keep it linked to inflation,” Lynch said, “because repair costs rise over time, too.”

Jobs and workforce

Many of the candidates have instead focused their economic agendas on ideas like raising the minimum wage from $12.50 to $15 as early as next year, making long-term investments using the state’s budget reserve and federal pandemic aid, and increasing employment opportunities.

Two years after Maryland’s unemployment rate shot up to double digits during the initial COVID-19 business shutdowns, that rate was 4% in May — down from 5.7% a year earlier, but higher than the national average of 3.6%, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

And like the rest of the country, there are fewer workers rejoining the ranks.

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About 3,204,000 workers made up Maryland’s labor force in May — virtually the same number as April 2020, when the first month of the pandemic led to a loss of 170,000 positions, according to the federal labor statistics.

“All companies are struggling to get workers, from the entry level to the most advanced,” said Daraius Irani, chief economist at Towson University’s Regional Economic Studies Institute.

Irani said while it may “seem like a problem that can be solved very easily,” considering the number of openings and the number of people available to work, the state faces significant challenges around workforce training, transportation and housing.

Job training and apprenticeship initiatives have been a cornerstone of some of the campaigns.

Franchot has pledged to create 100,000 jobs in 100 weeks by investing in infrastructure, developing a statewide job-training program with unions and businesses, and creating a “better small business environment.”

Wes Moore, an author and former nonprofit leader, has talked about a program that guarantees high school graduates a year of public service in exchange for job training and tuition assistance.

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Tom Perez has called for more investments in EARN Maryland, a workforce development program that started under the Maryland Department of Labor after he led the office and moved on to serve as U.S. labor secretary under President Barack Obama.

Schulz, promoting apprenticeships and job-training initiatives on the GOP side, also served as state labor secretary — during Hogan’s first term — and helped grow the EARN program, according to Department of Labor reports from her tenure. Her last year in the department, in 2018, she celebrated the program’s initiatives targeting jobs in information technology and cybersecurity, as well as national recognition from the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.

Jon Baron, a former official in the Clinton administration and nonprofit leader, has also talked about training for every worker in Maryland who wants a state-paid training and employer-paid internship. He and other Democrats have also talked about focusing on highly skilled and in-demand occupations in IT, quantum computing, and STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields.

Many of their plans put a heavy emphasis on community colleges to carry out the programs, though what kind of taxpayer-funded investment that would take is typically absent.

Transportation, housing and barriers to employment

Addressing Maryland’s needs in a post-pandemic economy won’t be complete without providing access to transportation, affordable housing, child care and criminal record expungement, said Christopher Dews, senior policy advocate at the Job Opportunity Task Force, a nonprofit that helps connect low-income, low-skilled Baltimore residents with jobs.

Dews said the people he serves, many of who are formerly incarcerated, face barriers to employment that have existed for decades, such as extended, yearslong delays in getting nonviolent criminal offenses expunged from their records. Public transportation is also critical, he said.

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“We can get you a job, but we can’t get you to the job,” said Dews, noting the high price of cars right now and insurance that can be costly, based on residents’ ZIP code and credit history.

The candidates have talked frequently about transportation infrastructure, with all the Democrats saying they’d support reviving the Red Line project or some version of the east-west Baltimore light rail that Hogan canceled in 2015. They’ve talked about investing in high-speed rail, electric vehicles and improving Baltimore City’s buses.

“For those relying on public transportation, more than a ride is at stake,” Moore said in an April ad that showed him riding a Baltimore bus alone at night. “Our jobs, our education and our livelihoods hang in the balance.”

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Claudia Wilson Randall, executive director of the Community Development Network of Maryland, a nonprofit that represents groups that work on housing and community revitalization, said what’s most worrisome to her right now is the way rent and other housing costs are outpacing wages.

“Wages and housing are wildly out of sync and I don’t know how communities are going to survive. I don’t know how low-income people statewide, who are mostly Black and brown, will get through this time,” Randall said, noting the slow rollout of federal housing assistance during the pandemic.

She said she would like the next governor to make a $600 million commitment for affordable housing over three years. With 15,000 vacant properties in Baltimore and, by one estimate, a need for an additional 88,000 units over the next decade, the next governor should use the historic budget surplus to make these kinds of “bold investments,” she said.

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The candidates haven’t put a number on it, but many have talked about the need for such investments — and the need to do so through an equitable lens.

Perez, in his platform, talks about the disparity between Maryland’s white homeownership rate of roughly three-quarters versus about half for Black residents. Former Attorney General Doug Gansler, in his platform, talks about addressing the increasing Black homeownership that drives the racial wealth gap by “improving access to capital and ensuring discriminatory Realtors and banks are held to account.”

King has said he would model housing assistance around the American Housing and Economic Mobility Act sponsored by U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a Massachusetts Democrat, to provide grants in previously redlined communities.

In an interview this spring, King turned to affordable housing — and universal child care — even when asked specifically what he, if elected, should or could do to fight inflation. He responded that the role of the state is to focus on helping people with the biggest cost drivers, the ones that are most “manageable.”


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