Power plays in Annapolis

April 02, 2006|By C. FRASER SMITH

For a few moments last week, it appeared the Democrats had scored a bloodless coup.

The state Senate, soon to be followed by the House of Delegates, was taking control of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s Public Service Commission.

The commission has presided over a plan that will, if allowed to stand, increase rates this summer by 72 percent.

Under the Senate bill, two members of the PSC would be appointed by the Senate president, two by the speaker of the House and one by the governor.

This was a frontal assault, a potential power outage. But the governor had a relatively mild reaction. Just political theater, he said. Just posturing.

Then came Wednesday. If the Democrats in the General Assembly were determined to plunder the gubernatorial realm, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. would respond in kind. He would take control of 11 schools in the city of Mayor Martin O'Malley, apparent front-runner in the race to oppose him this fall.

The Democrats could save the ratepayers. Mr. Ehrlich would save the children.

Game on.

These two moves may be seen in time as the real opening of the 2006 race for governor. Partisans can argue that substance - concern for electricity consumers and concern for young people - drove these bold actions. There is no question that city schools need help. Few would question the need for easing the rate spike.

But school performance in Baltimore has been improving. More kids are doing well on the state's proficiency tests. Can the same be said for the PSC in its domain?

Republicans say the PSC takeover was a swipe at the governor. Surely it was. But it was more than that. It was a symbolic statement of the Assembly's need to act with drama commensurate with the threat to consumers.

Legislative leaders are rushing the bill to passage so it could be vetoed by the governor - a near-certainty - and overridden before the end of the session. If this happens, Democrats may have scored much more than a swipe. They will have forced the governor to veto a bill that accomplishes something many Marylanders may now applaud: removal of commissioners who seem too friendly with the utilities.

It may well be that the price increases were beyond the control of the utilities. But someone should have done something to prepare the Marylanders for the jolt. That failure itself created serious political damage, leaving the governor to explain why his administration had not been more proactive.

For leverage in the effort for financial relief, legislators have been threatening to stymie Constellation Energy Group's effort to merge with a Florida company. Fix this mess, the Assembly is saying, or we'll stop the merger. Constellation threatens legal action, but that is likely to help the legislators. Voters see them fighting like tigers against the big corporation.

For legislators, this is a race to the mailbox.

BGE has 1.2 million customers in Maryland. Some are already receiving bills that reflect phased-in increases in the cost of energy - and the results of the Assembly's decision to deregulate the energy industry. Predicted competition did not occur, and prices have gone higher - in an election year.

The dollars-and-cents message in the utility bills will be far more riveting to homeowners than the annoying campaign literature that will come flooding into mail slots. An incumbent's recitation of accomplishment may not stand up well against the big bills.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. and House Speaker Michael E. Busch have been saying for three years that Mr. Ehrlich is not sufficiently engaged in the process of governing. This situation, in which major rate increases seemed to come from nowhere, can be used to underscore that point.

The governor said recently that no one should be surprised that he has worked to help business. Hadn't he been a pro-business candidate? At the same time, he says the rate increase will not stand. This issue tends to pin him between somewhat irreconcilable positions - pro-business and pro-consumer.

Does that explain the school takeover move?

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

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