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Gubernatorial candidates pledge to restore highway revenue

OCEAN CITY — Maryland is on the wrong track.

That was the message of most of the candidates who participated in the Maryland Municipal League’s forum on Tuesday.

The gubernatorial primary hopefuls included four Republicans and two Democrats, and all but one took turns painting a picture of a state that’s unfriendly to business and full of unhappy residents.

“All of these tax increases have caused us to lose 6,500 small businesses; we’ve lost 80,000 jobs, we’ve had the largest mass exodus of taxpayers leaving our state of any state in the mid-Atlantic region and one of the worst in the nation,” said Larry Hogan, founder of Change Maryland and a Republican who served as appointments secretary in former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.’s cabinet.

All of the Republican candidates — Charles County businessman Charles Lollar, Del. Ron George of Anne Arundel County, Harford County Executive David Craig and Hogan — chastised Gov. Martin O’Malley’s administration for what they described as a tax-happy style of governance.

“If you believe that this state is going in the right direction, whether we’re talking about transportation, whether we’re talking about municipal rule, or whether we’re talking about crime, then I am not your guy. I do not believe we’re going in the right direction,” Lollar said.

Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler, a Democrat, also was critical of the O’Malley administration, and by extension his primary opponent, Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown. Gansler echoed statements by Republicans attacking the current administration for being anti-business and too willing to raise taxes. He also continued to slam Brown for his handling of the state’s health care exchange website.

“The lieutenant governor, literally the only thing he’s ever managed or been put in charge [of] was the Affordable Care Act rollout: $200 million of your money down the drain for a website,” Gansler said. “And the real tragedy is, hundreds of thousands of Marylanders were not able to get health care.”

Brown countered the criticism by saying he was proud of the O’Malley administration’s accomplishments, but added he knows there is still work to be done in the state.

“We’ve made a lot of progress. However, I often talk about the progress points, not with a period after that but with a comma or a semicolon. We’ve built the best-in-the-nation public schools, but it doesn’t end with a period. What comes after the comma is that we have work to do,” Brown said.

Del. Heather R. Mizeur, a Democrat from Montgomery County who is also seeking her party’s nomination in the June 24 primary, was not present.

Of the six candidates at the forum, the one major policy everyone agreed on was the need to restore state highway user revenue, which represents the major source of funding towns receive from the state. Each candidate said he would restore the funding, which was slashed from about $45 million in fiscal 2008 to as low as $1.6 million two years ago.

Funding was raised to about half of 2008’s level in the current budget, but that bump-up came from a one-time grant. The Maryland Municipal League’s top legislative priority for several years now has been to get the state to fully restore funding.

“We will work together with MML to make sure that we restore funding to the levels that we saw in fiscal year 2008,” Brown said.

Hogan went a step further, proposing a new “lock box” to prevent governors from using the state transportation trust fund to prop up the general fund. He said the current administration had essentially picked the locks, or the mechanisms in place that were intended to prevent those funds from being used elsewhere.

“The issue is that we’ve got mismanaged and misspent priorities. The current group in Annapolis has syphoned $1 billion out of the transportation trust fund, which left no more money for highway user revenues,” Hogan said. “We took that $1 billion and spent it on things that have nothing to do with transportation.”