Delegate Candidates Talk Economy, Taxes At Forum

(Editor’s Note: The Coastal Association of Realtors and the Salisbury Area Chamber of Commerce last week hosted a forum for the District 38B House of Delegates candidates. A wide variety of questions were asked about taxes, improving Maryland’s business climate and what they hoped to accomplish or change if elected. The following is the second installment in a two-part series about the forum.)

BERLIN – During a candidate forum last week, the four District 38B House of Delegates candidates were asked about their collective economic backgrounds in managing budgets, experiences that will likely serve the eventual winners well when they get to Annapolis.

A diverse filed of candidates are vying for two District 38B House of Delegates seats including two Democrats and two Republicans, although the top two vote getters will emerge victorious regardless of party affiliation. With the state’s economy still stalled in a lingering recession, budgets and finances are at the heart of the issue in the upcoming election, and each of the candidates was asked during last week’s forum about his or her economic backgrounds.

“I have a checkbook and I have to balance it every month,” said Republican candidate and Pocomoke Mayor Mike McDermott. “I’m also the chief of police in Snow Hill and have to get by on what you can imagine is a very meager budget, so I understand living inside my means. This is where Maryland has gotten so far off track.”

Democratic challenger and Berlin Mayor Gee Williams said he would draw on his collective life experiences in the private and public sectors if and when it came time to deal with the state’s finances.

“I’ve owned and operated newspapers in the private sector, I’ve worked for the state of Maryland with the State Highway Administration and I now work in the non-profit community,” he said. “In addition, I’m the mayor of a municipality, so my unique experiences have prepared me for this challenge. The one thing I’ve learned is that life is too costly and too complicated for government to be the answer for all things.”

Like Williams, Republican challenger Marty Pusey has a wealth of experience in managing budgets from which to draw from should she be elected. Pusey said reigning in spending is imperative with the state budget continuing to swell.

“In my capacity with the health department, I oversee about 20 different budgets, and I also own my own business, so I have practical experience,” she said. “Maryland is looking at a $2 billion deficit this year that could swell to $8 billion in five years. We need to get our house in order and we need to see pork spending come to a halt.”

As the lone incumbent in the field, Democrat Norm Conway said state lawmakers have worked in earnest to curb spending while maintaining programs for those who need them the most.

“In the General Assembly, we have reduced spending and we have been extremely careful to maintain fiscal prudence and social responsibility,” he said.

The state’s economic recovery is largely dependent on a robust business climate, but Maryland has a growing reputation for becoming increasingly unfriendly to new business with an onerous tax structure and increased regulation. The candidates were asked what they thought could be done to relax the rules in Maryland. Conway said over-regulation and hefty fines were at the heart of the issue.

“I’m aware businesses come in and talk about Maryland’s regulatory process,” he said. “The fines are out of control and unreasonable and we have to work toward modification, but there has to be a process.”

Pusey said over-regulation in Maryland was stifling the state’s economy.

“Every time we pass another regulation, we take away choices,” she said. “There is an obvious place for regulations, but they have to be based on real science. The current assault on poultry and agriculture in general is unreasonable.”

Pusey said state lawmakers need to curb their collective zeal for new regulations.

“For every new law that’s passed, we should have to eliminate two older ones,” she said. “The number of new laws and regulations is out of hand.”

Williams said while the intent of many state regulations is founded in common sense, the focus is often changed in the implementation.

“In many cases, they take a good law but put in place regulations that hurt the towns,” he said. “When applied to the private sector, the results can be devastating. In most cases, the law is good, but the application is unreasonable.”

McDermott echoed Pusey’s sentiment about over-regulation in Maryland, although his remarks took on a decidedly harsher tone. He pointed out the impacts of increased state regulations on agriculture, for example.

“Over 1,500 bills carried forward in Annapolis,” he said. “That’s an outrage and we’re not going to tolerate it. We’re myopic in Maryland. It’s a one-party system and you’re not getting Eastern Shore values heard in Annapolis. They’re tone deaf to what’s going on down here and if we don’t change this, we’re going to lose a way of life forever. If we don’t stand up for our farmers now, when are we going to do it.”

At the end of the forum, each of the four District 38B candidates was allowed to sum up their bids with a brief closing statement. Williams urged voters to look at his record as mayor of Berlin when heading to the polls in November.

“If you want a better future for the Lower Shore, you need somebody who knows the difference between spending and investing public dollars,” he said. “My record is creating jobs, supporting the environment and creating business relationships.”

For Pusey, the election boils down to satisfaction with the status quo or an opportunity to affect real change in Maryland. She referred to the current tax and spend attitude in the state as an addiction.

“I bring a unique combination of experiences and skills to the table,” she said. “We need a change of attitude. We have an addiction of taxing and spending and we need to change that culture.”

McDermott, for his part, went beyond calling for change in the upcoming election. The Pocomoke mayor said there might never be a greater opportunity to dramatically change the culture in Annapolis then November 2.

“It’s the election of our lifetime,” he said. “The issue tonight is about wholesale change and how this state will survive. Philosophically, we need to change how this state is run. If we don’t make this state more business friendly, we’re going to get bigger government and more taxes.”

McDermott also took the opportunity to call out the district’s current representation in Annapolis, essentially accusing them of paying lip service to conservative Eastern Shore values.

“They get to that bridge with their conservative Eastern Shore values, but they leave them in a bucket on the bridge and pick up their liberal values on the other side,” he said.

For his part, Conway took exception to McDermott’s pigeon-holing the district’s representatives into neat and tidy partisan definitions.

“I don’t consider myself a liberal or a conservative,” he said. “I believe in paying my way with fiscal prudence and social responsibility.”

McDermott called out Conway and fellow District 38B Delegate Jim Mathias for voting for a tax increase package during a special session two years ago. However, while Conway acknowledged voting for the tax hikes, he reminded those attending the forum much of the revenue was dedicated to important projects in the district.

“I voted for those taxes, but only because one half of one penny on the tax rate was dedicated to restoring the Transportation Trust Fund,” he said. “That one half of one penny kept Route 113 going and that same half of one penny will improve Route 589.”