In sometimes sharply critical terms, the Republican candidate for lieutenant governor of Maryland sought yesterday to put her opponent on the defensive, an effort he countered by challenging her qualifications for the job.
Lois Shepard, the GOP candidate, charged that under Gov. William Donald Schaefer, Marylanders are paying for lavish and ill-considered public projects, watching the creation of an ominous budget deficit, living with increased threats to public safety and facing the prospect of new taxes next year.
Lt. Gov. Melvin A. Steinberg, the Democratic incumbent, fired back by charging that Mrs. Shepard has no experience in state or local government and does not understand the budget process.
"What you're hearing," he said, "is political rhetoric to incite people. . . . We are an outstanding state because of achievements, not rhetoric."
Maryland's deficit, Mr. Steinberg said, challenging the accuracy of the term, amounts to no more than 3 percent of the state's overall $12 billion budget.
Mrs. Shepard countered: "A $250 million deficit is not 'No big deal.' If you go out and talk to people instead of at the people, you'll see that people are afraid of becoming Virginia or Massachusetts," states with much larger deficits.
Mr. Steinberg insisted that Maryland does not and will not have a deficit. He said the projected budget shortfalls have been taken care of by Governor Schaefer, who implemented a series of program cuts, ordered a hiring freeze and took other measures to bring spending into balance with revenue, as required by the state constitution.
The two candidates for lieutenant governor debated yesterday in a radio broadcast of WCBM-AM. After an hour of charges and countercharges, callers were asked to present questions of their own.
The encounter was, in a sense, the first close-range conflict of the fall campaign. Governor Schaefer has so far refused to debate his GOP opponent, William S. Shepard.
Mrs. Shepard -- who is also the wife of the GOP gubernatorial candidate -- complimented Mr. Steinberg: "He is not hiding from his record."
Mr. Schaefer, she added, is hiding.
While the lieutenant governor candidates debated in a small studio, Mr. Shepard sat on a stool in an adjoining broadcast booth and watched through a glass partition. Occasionally, he flashed a "thumbs up" signal to his wife or held a hastily written prompt up to the glass for his wife to see.
When Mrs. Shepard suggested that a $250 million deficit really is a big deal, he pumped his fist and said, "Sock it to him!"
Asked if they would favor a more progressive state income tax with higher rates imposed on higher incomes, the candidates offered differing responses.
Mrs. Shepard said, "No."
Mr. Steinberg said taxes are a "double-edged sword." If they are raised, they can curtail activity in the marketplace and actually VTC lower tax receipts. He said a decision on increasing taxes cannot be made until needs are assessed. And he said Maryland decisions must await taxation decisions made by federal government.
"No study of the state's income tax structure has occurred for 20 years," Mr. Steinberg said. In that time, important shifts of population and wealth have occurred in Maryland.
"There's a tremendous confusion of taxes," he said. But he said he believed that decisions about altering the structure or increasing taxes would depend on studies to be done after the Linowes commission's report on tax reform is issued in November, after the election.
He did not answer the question about raising the income tax.
Mrs. Shepard again charged that the commission has been "muzzled" and that the voters deserve to know before the election what changes the Schaefer administration will recommend in the way taxes are assessed in Maryland.
Failure to "prioritize" the money already collected, she said, leads to a prison system so overcrowded it must release dangerous prisoners.
Mrs. Shepard also criticized the administration for the early-leave policy that led to the release of John F. Thanos, now charged with killing three teen-agers.
"The release of Thanos," she said, "was a disgrace and proof of failure." She said the Schaefer administration's "quick fix" system of reducing sentences by crediting criminals even with "good time" accrued in ear lier incarcerations was "cockamamie." Some 300 prisoners have been released each month under this system, she said.
"I think the people of Maryland do not need 300 time bombs on the streets," she said.
Mr. Steinberg said Maryland cannot escape the fact that most prisoners will be back on the streets. The system of "good time" sentence reductions, he said, is necessary to give prisoners some incentive to reform their lives, to prepare them for release and to ease the overcrowding of the prisons.
When the debate ended, the two candidates shook hands, complimented each other and good-naturedly agreed not to debate over whose grandchildren are prettiest or smartest.