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Anthony Brown
Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown, shakes hands with supporters outside a polling place at Hazelwood Elementary/Middle School on primary day in Baltimore, June 24, 2014. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

Could tax pledge paint Brown into corner?

Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown’s campaign pledge to forgo tax increases if elected governor has raised the eyebrows of some who were lining up for such increases and from observers who say the promise paints  the Democratic nominee into a corner.

Several observers said the promise could present complications for both the campaign and for a Brown administration should he be elected and the need for more tax revenue arises.

“Let me be clear, I don’t see the need, nor as governor will I raise taxes in a Brown-Ulman administration,” said Brown during a Monday debate with Republican challenger Larry Hogan. The promise was the second time in in a week  Brown made his declaration.

The pledge places Brown in the position of making promises typically issued by Republicans nationally. Hogan has said he would seek to roll back unspecified taxes and has repeatedly sought to link Brown  to the 40 tax increases Republicans say were passed in the last eight years under Gov. Martin J. O’Malley.

The lieutenant governor has not elaborated on what his pledge means or if he, as O’Malley did in his 2006 gubernatorial campaign, considers fees a form of tax. O’Malley, a Democrat, challenged then Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. on his credibility, saying fee hikes endorsed by Ehrlich were just another form of a tax increase.

“It likely does little to dispel the Hogan narrative that Brown will raise taxes,” said Mileah Kromer, an assistant professor of political science at Goucher College. “What it certainly does is give Republican strategists a convenient sound bite for future ads.  And, while increasing taxes is unpopular in theory — there are certain types of taxes that a majority residents don’t object to increasing.  Sin taxes — those that tax liquor and cigarettes — immediately come to mind. ”

The statement caught the attention of some advocates who are seeking an increase in the state tax on tobacco.

“We’re concerned about that,” said Gene M. Ransom III, chief executive officer of the Maryland State Medical Society.

The organization, which represents 22,000 licensed physicians in 50 specialties, supports a proposed $2 to $3 per pack hike and increasing the tax on other tobacco products from 30 percent of the wholesale price to 95 percent. The proposal would also require the next governor to spend at least $21 million annually on prevention and cessation programs.

Brown was supportive of the 2012 effort to add $1 to the tobacco tax.

The physicians’ organization, in concert with Maryland Citizens Health Initiative, has focused efforts on lining up support for the increase from candidates for the both the House and Senate. Earlier this year, advocates said they believed they had garnered enough support to grease the way for the increase.

Ransom said his organization would like to better understand what Brown’s comments mean for their effort.

Vincent DeMarco, president of Maryland Citizens Health Initiative, downplayed Brown’s comments.

“We’re focusing our efforts on the legislators,” said DeMarco. “It’s one step at a time.”

The Brown campaign did not respond to requests to elaborate on the no-tax pledge.

Brown’s pledge comes as a number of polls have reported that taxes, jobs and the economy are foremost on the minds of Maryland voters — all topics Hogan has hammered Brown on for months.

“Whether (the promise) is credible or not, he was forced to take that position,” said Donald Norris, professor and chair of public policy at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

In the debate Monday, Brown said the stance was consistent with his primary election campaign. In fact, Brown’s pledge in the last week goes a step further.

The lieutenant governor frequently said during the primary campaign that he didn’t see the need to raise taxes, leaving the door open if such a need arises.

“While I don’t see the need in the foreseeable future to raise taxes, I do see the need for comprehensive tax reform that allows us to make the necessary investments in infrastructure and human capital, while ensuring a tax code that reflects our progressive values and our modern economy,” Brown said in a candidate survey provided to Capital News Service.

The statement may also conflict with other positions of Brown, including his support of combined reporting for multi-state corporations,  which would raise state taxes for some businesses that now largely avoid them.

“I support preventing corporations that use accounting methods to avoid Maryland taxes, shifting their profits to low tax states or overseas,” Brown wrote in a candidates survey from the Maryland State Education Association’s political action committee. “This deprives Maryland of important revenues for our schools and our State. We need a tax code that supports Maryland businesses but also forces multi-state companies to pay their fair share.”

Brown, who has repeatedly charged that Hogan’s plans would result in increased state property taxes, could find himself in similar straits.

The rate, currently 11.2 cents per $100 in assessed value, is used to cover the debt service on state bonds.

A report released earlier this year by the Commission on State Debt warns that additional increases in the state property tax rate may be necessary.

Since 2009, O’Malley has relied on shifting money from dedicated accounts such as the Chesapeake Bay Trust Fund and Program Open Space, and replacing that cash with bonds, to balance the state’s budget.

The growing reliance on borrowing is creating a gap in what the property tax can cover. The next governor will likely have to find a way to cover an expected budget deficit along with a projected $371 million in debt service. The money to cover the shortage would come from the state general fund without a property tax increase. That figure is projected to grow to $436 million in fiscal 2017, $493 million in fiscal 2018 and $519 million in fiscal 2019, according to the report.

Norris, the UMBC professor said the promise could paint Brown into a corner by taking positions more typically taken by Republicans. In the most prominent case, then-President George H.W. Bush jettisoned his 1988 campaign pledge — “Read my lips: no new taxes” — to deal with a growing federal deficit. Bush’s abandonment of that pledge infuriated the conservative wing of his party.

“Democrats don’t like taking positions like that because it’s a terrible position to take,” Norris. “You never know what’s going to happen in the future. You never want to say ‘never.'”