Political Squeeze on PSC

July 05, 1993

State Sen. Thomas P. O'Reilly of Prince George's County has every right to champion the cause of independent power producers trying to break the monopoly on power plants held by public utilities such as Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. But Mr. O'Reilly has no right to use undue influence and political muscle to force the Public Service Commission to do things his way.

His efforts to strong-arm the PSC failed. But chairman Frank O. Heintz was so appalled at Mr. O'Reilly's actions that he took the highly unusual step of accusing the senator of "an inappropriate attempt to unduly influence our deliberations" in a manner that may have violated the law.

Mr. O'Reilly had condemned the PSC's decision to allow BG&E to build a 140 megawatt, gas-fired turbine at its Perryman plant in Harford County for use during "peak" periods, such as this summer's hottest days. The senator thought private firms should have been given a chance to build the plant. Nothing wrong there. A little competition from independent power companies might do BG&E some good. It might also prove cheaper for consumers.

Where the senator erred was in trying to throw his political weight around at the last minute with the five members of the PSC. He even warned Mr. Heintz that if the panel didn't reopen this case so the independents could bid on the project, he would use hearings before his Finance Committee to bludgeon the PSC for its actions.

We thought that sort of heavy-handed approach disappeared decades ago. The PSC is, after all, an independent agency that isn't supposed to bend to the will of a state senator. It is supposed to decide these complicated public utility cases on the basis of the facts. When political office holders start interfering, the integrity of the regulatory process is threatened.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, who also hails from Prince George's County, had better have a talk with Mr. O'Reilly. He was treading on dangerous legal and ethical ground in his dealings with the PSC. Politicians shouldn't be mucking about in regulatory decisions.

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