Jean Webb of Baltimore voted for Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) twice, and she understands the economic hardships that led to a number of tax and fee increases during his two terms. But somewhere along the way, it all reached a breaking point.
Now, the gas tax is higher to fund transportation projects. Nearly all purchases come with a higher sales tax. And her water bill includes a higher anti-pollution fee.
“We all have to pay taxes, and I don’t mind paying my fair share,” said Webb, 54, who is raising her 10-year-old granddaughter. “I’m so outrageously taxed that we should have the best schools and the best roads of anywhere in the country.”
In picking Maryland’s next governor next month, Webb said that she is willing to cross party lines for a Republican with a plan to run government more efficiently and roll back taxes without hurting funding for her granddaughter’s school. But she isn’t sure if that candidate exists.
“I don’t know,” she said. “I just don’t know yet.”
This race was supposed to be an easy win for Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown, a Democrat in a deeply blue state who has the strong backing of the state’s powerful political establishment. Instead, a Washington Post-University of Maryland poll released last week found that Brown is leading his Republican opponent, Larry Hogan, by nine percentage points.
A major part of his problem: taxes.
That was named the dominant issue for this race by the largest number of likely voters in the new survey. It’s the one area where voters trust Hogan — an Anne Arundel County businessman without much political experience — more than Brown. And anti-tax voters are among the most motivated to go to the polls.
That’s unusual for Maryland, which is one of the wealthiest states in the country and one where Democrats outnumber Republicans more than 2-to-1. Complaints about taxes in gubernatorial races in recent years have often been overshadowed by discussions about education, strengthening the state economy and government services.
But in the eight years that O’Malley and Brown have been in charge, statewide and local taxes and fees have crept up, fueling resentment among some voters who feel like their salaries haven’t kept pace — and giving Hogan the opportunity to run on a rather simplistic platform of cutting government waste, controlling spending and providing tax relief to those who need it most.
Despite how welcome that message may be to some voters — 55 percent of likely voters in the Post-U-Md. poll support repealing recent tax increases — Hogan has yet to fully lock down their support. A bare 53 percent majority of these anti-tax voters support Hogan, while 34 percent back Brown. Among likely voters who oppose getting rid of recent taxes, Brown tops Hogan by a 62 to 23 percent margin.
And while Hogan might dominate on taxes, Brown wins the trust of likely voters on most other issues, including education, health care and social issues such as abortion and gay marriage. All of that support combined overpowers Hogan’s single-issue stronghold. Plus, over seven in 10 of likely voters polled said they support spending more state money to expand pre-kindergarten classes to more children, one of Brown’s key proposals that aims to better prepare all children for school while helping many families with the often-expensive burden of child care.
Still, taxation has clearly become a concern for the Brown campaign. The Democrat has said for months that he doesn’t see a need to increase taxes, but that message has recently turned into a more forceful promise — and one that Brown made at least five times during an hour-long televised debate on Tuesday. His other comments focused heavily on job creation, cost-cutting and making Maryland more business-friendly.
“Let me be clear: I don’t see the need, nor as governor of Maryland, to raise taxes,” Brown said within the first few minutes of the debate. “There will be no new taxes in the Brown-Ulman administration.” Brown’s running mate is Howard County Executive Ken Ulman.
But Hogan kept firing back at him with lines such as this: “What the lieutenant governor just said really sounds pretty good. Unfortunately, it’s the complete opposite of his eight-year record of failure.”
When O’Malley and Brown ran for their first term in 2006 against then-Gov. Robert Ehrlich (R), they criticized the Republican for hiking fees in the state, although he did not increase income or sales taxes. Immediately after winning the election, they had to deal with an expected shortage of revenue that could hit more than $1.6 billion by their second year in office. They made cuts, but in an effort to preserve and improve education — the recipient of nearly half of state funds — and remain committed to other priorities, the administration pushed for tax increases.
The governor called a special session in the fall of 2007, and lawmakers approved a series of tax increases designed to generate an extra $1.4 billion per year. The sales tax went from 5 percent to 6 percent. The tobacco tax on a pack of cigarettes was doubled to $2. The corporate income tax grew from 7 percent to 8.25 percent. The cost of titling a vehicle went from 5 percent to 6 percent. Aside from the corporate tax, these taxes tend to hit lower-income residents with less disposable income harder.
Lawmakers also overhauled the state’s personal income tax structure to establish higher rates for the state’s wealthier residents, while raising exemptions for low- and middle-income residents. The Maryland Department of Budget reports that 86 percent of Marylanders pay less in state income taxes than they did before O’Malley took office.
The next few years brought a “millionaires tax,” which expired in 2011, and revenue-generating speed cameras and toll increases. Then the tax on alcoholic beverages went from 6 percent to 9 percent, and the state allowed local governments to start charging a stormwater management fee to raise money to mitigate how much pollution makes it to the Chesapeake Bay.
During another special session in 2012, lawmakers approved another package of tax increases, including a higher income tax rate for residents making six figures. Later came a gradually increasing tax on gasoline to fund transportation projects.
Maryland registered voters overall are largely split on taxes, according to the Post-U-Md. poll, with 48 percent saying they would like to see recent taxes repealed and 43 percent saying taxes should be kept.
“If we want services, we pay taxes,” said Barbara Hale, 76, who lives on the Eastern Shore and is a registered Democrat. “If you want schools and roads and environmental protections — the list is endless — then you have to pay taxes.”
But the poll shows that critics of recent taxes are more motivated to turn out; 69 percent of repeal supporters say they are “absolutely certain to vote” in November, compared with 54 percent of those who support keeping taxes in place. As a result of this disparity, a clear majority of likely voters favor rolling back taxes.
But those increased fees and taxes, even if they are only slightly higher, add up to a higher cost of living, said Diane Fontana Raycob, 58, a former Baltimore County teacher who lives in Bel Air. As she and her husband become less tied to Maryland by jobs and family, they have considered moving to another state where their money will go further, such as Pennsylvania, or Delaware, where there’s no sales tax.
“It never gets smaller, it always gets bigger,” Raycob said. “I hope it would be different in another state under a different governor and different leadership.”
Raycob is registered as an independent but often votes for Republicans. She is leaning toward Hogan, although she worries that he doesn’t have enough experience. She doesn’t believe Brown’s promise to not increase taxes.
“I think he says what people want to hear,” she said. “If he does get into office, he might find that he has to raise taxes.”
When Hogan is out on the campaign trail, voters often bring up the conversation of taxes before he does. It’s an easy rallying point for the Republican. Last Thursday he visited Sunrise Safety Services, a traffic-sign-making company in Glen Burnie, to accept the endorsement of a small business lobbying group.
Toward the end, Donavin Petre introduced himself to Hogan. Petre and his wife, who stays at home with their two young sons, have thought about leaving Maryland, perhaps moving to Norfolk, Va., where they think the cost of living and taxes would be lower.
Petre, 37, said that as soon as he gets paid on Fridays, his paycheck is eaten up by taxes, the mortgage, groceries and other expenses. It now costs $8 a day in tolls for Petre to get over the Key Bridge to work. The family no longer has cable or goes on vacations. Petre would like to send his sons to college, so they don’t have to work jobs like the ones he has had, but it’s difficult to save for that.
“You’re the first guy I’ve heard in six years to mention the working class,” Petre told Hogan. “It’s been ‘the middle class, the middle class, the middle class.’ We don’t all make six figures.”
“It’s struggling Maryland families and individuals that are really hurting,” Hogan told him. “And the lower end of the income scale are the people who have been suffering the most.”
“I just want to thank you for acknowledging that not everybody gets to be middle class,” Petre said. “It takes a lot of working class to support the middle class.”
The Post-U-Md. poll was conducted Oct. 2-5 among a random sample of 1,005 adults reached on conventional and cellular phones. The margin of sampling error is plus or minus four percentage points for registered voters and five percentage points for likely voters.
Peyton M. Craighill contributed to this report.