Politics shouldn't dominate news about BGE rates

public editor

The Public Editor

March 26, 2006|By PAUL MOORE | PAUL MOORE,PUBLIC EDITOR

The Sun's coverage of Baltimore Gas and Electric's looming 72 percent rate increase has become focused on the political ramifications of this huge regional story. Not surprisingly, both Democrats and Republicans have emphasized the other's shortcomings. Reactions from readers have become more strident.

Dan Rodricks' recent columns have revisited the 1999 Maryland General Assembly, which passed the deregulation legislation that has helped create the crisis that 1.2 million BGE consumers now face. Rodricks noted that many of the 129 delegates and senators who voted to approve deregulation - most of whom are Democrats - are still in office. He also noted that all the Republicans in office in 1999 voted for the bill. Only 50 Democrats in the House and Senate voted against it.

His March 16 column summed it up this way: "Industry trumps public interest. Politicians cave to big business and dismantle a perfectly fine system of price controls on a public utility. Citizens tune out. Government drops - and former industry officials assume - its regulatory role. ... Citizens tune in only after the damage is done. Politicians try to compensate by `softening the blow' for their constituents."

Responding to a large number of e-mails from readers, Rodricks in his March 19 column included a list of how current Maryland legislators voted on deregulation in 1999. Dave Lentz's reaction reflected the feelings of many.

"Seeing the names in the newspaper should give any citizen the needed information to challenge their individual representatives who caved in to the special interests," Lentz said.

Part of Rodricks' argument was that government agencies - in this case Maryland's Public Service Commission, which regulates prices set by the power companies - are more than ever made up of former power industry officials.

The Sun's March 14 front page featured an article about the five-person PSC, four of whose members were appointed by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. The Sun's Andrew Green reported that some believe the current PSC is too industry-friendly and is weak on consumer protection.

Baltimore's Mayor Martin O'Malley, a Democratic candidate for governor, was quoted high in the article calling the PSC a "lapdog for special interests." Later, the article noted that the methods used by the PSC to approve the 72 percent increase were created in April 2003, when all five PSC members were Gov. Parris N. Glendening appointees. One of them, the article noted, was J. Joseph "Max" Curran III, O'Malley's brother-in-law.

A number of readers criticized the article.

"So Mayor O'Malley is now placing the Democratic decision to deregulate electricity on the governor and the PSC," said David D. Waltemeyer Sr. "The legislature has been run by the Democrats for many, many years and since 1999 they have ignored the coming problem. "

In my view, O'Malley's quotes (as well as those from Democratic candidate Douglas M. Duncan) were too prominent because they were so politically loaded, and the comments from Ehrlich officials were too low.

An article headlined "PSC Head, Lobbyist Shared Strategy" dominated the top of The Sun's March 18 front page. The story reported on an exchange of e-mails last year between PSC Chairman Kenneth D. Schisler and a leading power industry lobbyist, in which the two discussed how to keep the deregulation plan on track and Schisler's recent firing of five senior PSC staff members.

The article by David Nitkin and Kelly Brewington documented what some have called unacceptable links between the regulators and those they regulate. Schisler was quoted high in the article defending his exchange with lobbyist Carville B. Collins. Then, on Wednesday, The Sun reported on additional e-mail exchanges between Schisler and other power industry officials about energy policies.

Readers reacted strongly.

"Will you ever stop pimping for the Maryland Democratic Party?" said Julia Persky.

From Ron Kershaw: "Thank you for your work of uncovering the workings of the PSC."

In a March 19 article, Ehrlich, who spoke on WBAL, was quoted as saying, "Where's the story?" While discussing deregulation, the governor called Democratic Senate leader Thomas V. Mike Miller "the man who drafted this, masterminded it, owns it lock stock and barrel."

In my view, the PSC/Schisler article was worthy of the front page. But the fact that Collins is not associated with BGE and has no direct link to the 72 percent increase somewhat muted the impact. The story's jump also should not have used a photo of Miller calling the e-mails a "smoking gun," given Miller's sponsorship of the 1999 legislation.

The political aspects of the BGE story are important, but The Sun should not focus on political finger pointing at the expense of reporting on what matters most: how and why we got into this mess and how we might get out of it.

The politics of electric power will continue no matter which party takes the lead.

Paul Moore's column appears Sundays.

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