Foul shots, flagrant fouls, fouling up and fouling out

March 19, 2006|By C. FRASER SMITH

Marylanders will be transfixed over the next few days by a new form of March Madness. It's the General Assembly's attempt to deal with the egregious near-doubling of electricity costs.

Perhaps only basketball could distract us from the impending strain on our wallets.

Basketball and public utilities aren't related, but for me, the issue contains a grim reminder of the cocaine-induced death of basketball star Len Bias 20 years ago. Administrators at the University of Maryland, College Park found themselves besieged with questions about the academic performance of players on that 1986 team.

Almost all of them were failing. Help had been offered, but they were unwilling or unable to take advantage of it. One official concluded that many of these young men were guilty of what he called "flegneg" - flagrant neglect. They didn't go to class. They didn't read the books. They didn't listen to the tutors. They failed.

The term comes to mind as a way to describe what Maryland government did or didn't do to protect Baltimore Gas & Electric Co. customers from an average annual price increase of $743 per household.

Didn't anyone see this coming? How could such a thing have happened?

Flegneg, if you ask me.

The ship was headed for an iceberg and no one changed course or sounded an alarm. We are less than four months away from a 72 percent increase in energy costs and our leaders are just now rushing around looking for some way to save themselves - not us - from an election-year catastrophe.

The situation invites plenty of dark speculation.

Theory 1: The energy industrial complex is ripping us off with impunity. The clever money guys have engineered schemes that a rocket scientist couldn't unravel. The buck stops with you and me.

Theory 2: The politicians are in league with the corporate scammers. The regulation-averse have allowed corporations to prey on consumers on the theory that Katrina and other acts of nature reduced supply and forced the companies to cover their costs by passing them on to the users.

Theory 3: Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and his men threw out one too many veteran, skilled and knowledgeable workers who happened to be Democrats. Among the victims was the well-respected people's counsel, Michael J. Travieso.

Here the problem was worse than neglect.

The problem was stripping the process of a critically important balance wheel. Ironically, Mr. Travieso might have saved Mr. Ehrlich from the political disaster he now faces.

He came from a distinguished line of men who believed their job was to "stir the pot," to present points of view that the energy industry might really dislike. It wasn't about Democrat or Republican. It was about representing the people.

Mr. Travieso opposed deregulation. He thought competition in the utility business, carefully wrapped in the All-American free-market ribbon, would not work.

The established firms had the customer base and the plants. The costs for competitors were prohibitive. More regulation, rather than less, might have been the right course.

The General Assembly plunged forward anyway, so a similar crisis might have been unavoidable even if Mr. Ehrlich had not sacked Mr. Travieso.

You can say this for the debacle: It shows the folly of dismissing skilled advocate/regulators to satisfy the lust for patronage. It shows why the Assembly's inquiry into personnel practices, now in abeyance, is important and substantive. Of course it's political. But politics can unmask foolish, disgraceful and damaging practices.

If Mike Travieso were still on the job, I am guessing, we would not be looking at a pathetically tardy and unseemly rush for election-year cover. We would have a solution drawn from the current circumstances and years of careful study.

Here's a solution gaining traction: Constellation Energy Group, BGE's parent, wants to merge with a company in Florida. There's leverage in that desire. The company should be urged to accept a consumer-friendly compromise or the merger approval could be denied.

But here's the really good news: It's an election year. There will be an immediate referendum on whatever solution emerges from the current frenzy.

Think of it as accountability madness.

C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst for WYPR-FM. His column appears Sundays. His e-mail is fsmith@wypr.org.

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