BERLIN – With Election Day just three weeks away, a not-so-subtle hint at the growing tension in the District 38 Senate seat race was on display on Wednesday at a candidate forum at Wor-Wic Community College.
District 38 Senate candidates Jim Mathias and Michael James were just two of many on the stage at Wor-Wic for a candidate forum on Wednesday hosted by the Coastal Association of Realtors and the Salisbury Area Chamber of Commerce that also featured the four District 38B and two District 38A House of Delegates candidates. Perhaps because the two Senate candidates were the only ones on stage facing a single opponent, the interactions between James and Mathias were decidedly chippy and at certain times personal.
Each candidate was given an opportunity for an opening statement, followed by three open-ended questions about taxes, their respective economic backgrounds and the need to improve the state’s business climate. In his opening statement, James stressed the importance, now more than ever, of change in the representation for Worcester County and the Lower Shore and pointed to his private sector successes.
“I strongly feel we need strong representation for the shore right now in Annapolis,” he said. “Maryland’s finances are in peril right now, and we need to control spending and create revenue. I’m a proven jobs creator. I took a failing business and turned it around, creating 200 to 300 jobs in the process.”
While James pointed out his success in turning around a failing hotel operation in Ocean City, Mathias stressed how the resort thrived under his leadership as mayor during the same time.
“I helped turn a $4 million assessable base to a $12 million assessable base when I left,” he said. “I vetoed two budgets because of tax increases.”
Mathias pointed out the disparity in the representation for the Eastern Shore in Annapolis and how he is perhaps better suited to forge the relationships necessary to get things done for the district.
“When you get to the General Assembly, you look up at the board and realize there are 141 Delegates and only 11 from the Eastern Shore,” he said. “You have to turn those 11 votes into 71 votes. The same holds true in the Senate. You have to change that one vote into 24 votes.”
When asked if he would support enabling legislation for the state’s municipalities to create and levy taxes to recoup state budget cuts, James said he generally opposed any new taxes but could support the measure if there was a political will in the towns to do it. “First of all, we need to restore those funds,” he said. “If the voters of a municipality decided they wanted that, there should be some local controls. Personally, I wouldn’t approve it. I don’t think taxes are the answer right now. The problem is not a shortage of taxes, the problem is controlling spending.”
Mathias also said he would not support any new taxes, but pointed out some of the successes Ocean City has had under his watch in creating special tax increases with the approval of the General Assembly.
“I’m not going to support any new taxes,” he said. “In Ocean City, we reached a consensus on a food and beverage tax and we reached a consensus on a hotel room tax and it allowed us to build a thriving business climate, but I will not initiate a new tax.”
It’s no secret Maryland has a growing reputation for being unfriendly to business with an overbearing tax structure and growing regulations. James said he would work on improving the state’s private sector business reputation if elected and would draw on his practical experiences to do so.
“We have to make sure we maintain local controls,” he said. “The biggest issue is the attitude and the perception among the business community that state government is not their friend, that state government is adversarial. If we change that attitude, the business community will thrive, but it has to be a partnership.”
Mathias said improving the state’s business reputation requires constant education about Maryland’s pro-business attributes.
“We educated our legislators and our regulators and we need to continue to educate on what our strengths are,” he said. “We have tremendous assets, and we need to make sure we allow them to grow and prosper.”
During closing statements, James clearly went on the offensive, going after Mathias and other elected officials for tinkering with their message when it comes time for the voters to head to the polls again. He also challenged the current District 38B delegates on their voting record on certain taxes.
“People are reinventing their record in an election year,” he said. “You can’t reinvent yourself every three-and-half years. Delegates Mathias and Conway voted for the personal income tax increase and the corporate tax increase. I have to set the record straight. We can’t re-elect the same people over and over and expect different results.”
Mathias stood his ground, however, pointing out he did support the income and corporate tax increases initially but only before they were lumped together with a much larger tax package.
“I did vote for those taxes, but halfway through the system, they added all of these other taxes onto the legislation, and when it came back for a vote, I voted against that entire tax package,” he said.